Professor Melanie Sanford
Winner: 2020 Catalysis in Organic Chemistry Award
University of Michigan
For the development of catalytic C–H functionalization reactions and their applications in organic synthesis.
Celebrate Professor Melanie Sanford
Professor Sanford’s research focuses on developing new chemical reactions that enable the production of pharmaceuticals, agrochemicals, and fuels in a more efficient and environmentally friendly manner. For example, she has developed innovative strategies that convert simple and readily available starting materials (for example carbon dioxide, carbon-hydrogen bonds) into much more complex products through the use of metal catalysis. She has made major advances in the discovery of new energy storage materials for applications in redox flow batteries as well as on the development of new approaches to the construction of radiotracers for positron emission tomography imaging.Read full biography
Professor Melanie Sanford is currently the Moses Gomberg Distinguished University Professor of Chemistry and Arthur F. Thurnau Professor of Chemistry at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor.
She received her B.S. and M.S. degrees at Yale University, graduate studies at the California Institute of Technology and postdoctoral work at Princeton University, before joining the University of Michigan in 2003 as an Assistant Professor of chemistry. She worked her way to the Moses Gomberg Collegiate Professor of Chemistry, and has won a number of awards including the ACS Award in Pure Chemistry, the Sackler Prize, the Blavatnik Award, and a MacArthur Foundation Fellowship. She is a member of the National Academy of Sciences and a Fellow of the ACS. Research in the Sanford Group aims to develop new chemical reactions that enable the production of pharmaceuticals, agrochemicals, and fuels in a more efficient and environmentally friendly manner. For example, her research focuses on converting simple and readily available starting materials (for example carbon dioxide, carbon-hydrogen bonds) into much more complex products through the use of transition metal catalysis.
What motivates you?
In terms of chemistry, I am motivated by solving challenging problems as well as by the possibility of discovering new and unexpected things that are outside of the original problem that my group was trying to solve. I am also motivated by working with and training highly energetic and motivated undergraduates, graduate students, and post-docs and seeing them learn and progress as scientists.
What has been your biggest challenge?
Figuring out the most effective ways to mentor, advise, and motivate young researchers has been my biggest challenge as a faculty member. This is not something you receive training in before you become a professor, and yet honestly, it is the most important thing that you do, as it is critical for both the trajectory of the research program and for the careers of the researchers that work with you. It is especially challenging because every student is different, with different backgrounds, motivations, interests and career goals, so determining how to balance individualized mentoring with group expectations is extremely challenging.
Why do you think interdisciplinary research and collaboration is important in science?
Collaboration and interdisciplinary research have helped me find extremely fruitful research projects and problems that I didn’t even know that I could contribute to tackling. For instance, my group now has large programs in both developing flow battery materials and in developing radiosynthesis methods. I knew almost nothing about either of these areas before being introduced to them by collaborators. However, as a result of those nascent collaborations, we are now making significant contributions to both areas by leveraging our unique perspective as experts in small molecule synthesis and organometallic catalysis.
What is your favourite element?
Palladium. It is incredibly versatile in catalyzing many different types of reactions. It provides access to lots of different oxidation states, which all exhibit different chemistries. And despite being studied for over 100 years it continues to surprise and give unexpected results in terms of its reactivity and catalysis.