Issue Date: January 24, 2011
ACS Award In Pure Chemistry And National Fresenius Award
Just over a year ago, Esquire called Melanie S. Sanford to request an interview. She thought the call was a practical joke. And when ACS Past-President Thomas H. Lane left Sanford voice mail asking her to call back, the last possibility in Sanford’s mind was that Lane was calling to congratulate her for winning the ACS Award in Pure Chemistry.
It’s no joke that in her short career, Sanford, 35, a professor of chemistry at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, has made significant contributions to the organometallic and organic chemistry communities. This awards season, in addition to the ACS Award in Pure Chemistry, she has won the National Fresenius Award, which is presented by Phi Lambda Upsilon. For a chemist to garner both of these awards over a career is rare. To win both in the same season is exceptionally so. “It was pretty amazing” to find out she had won the awards, Sanford says. She adds that it’s an honor to be listed alongside the “unbelievable list of people” who won the awards in years past.
Research in Sanford’s lab centers on transforming the ubiquitous carbon-hydrogen bond into other functional groups. “This is an exceptionally challenging area of research since C–H bonds are typically the least reactive part of complex organic structures and since many C–H bonds of nearly identical bond strength and reactivity typically exist in most organic compounds,” says Sanford’s Michigan colleague Mark E. Meyerhoff, the Philip J. Elving Professor of Chemistry.
Sanford achieves functionalizations of C–H bonds, alkenes, and alkynes by harnessing the power of palladium in a high oxidation state, a state that once was largely ignored by chemists. Hints that high-oxidation-state palladium could do fascinating chemistry were in elegant studies by others, Sanford says. “It wasn’t that I came up with anything brand-new.”
But colleagues say Sanford’s work sets her apart. “Many groups now investigate C–H bond functionalization using Sanford’s strategy. Her work results from a remarkable depth of thought, design, and mechanistic analysis,” according to John F. Hartwig, the Kenneth L. Rinehart Jr. Professor of Chemistry at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign.
Sanford “is unquestionably producing some of the most exciting synthetic methods and metal catalysis work in the field,” says Paul A. Wender, Bergstrom Professor of Chemistry at Stanford University.
The reactivity of other high-oxidation-state metals, such as nickel, also intrigues Sanford. “If we learn how to stabilize them, then we can think about getting them to do exciting chemistry,” she says. Her team is also dabbling in energy research by working on new ways to convert methane to methanol, oligomerize methane, and more.
Sanford earned a B.S. and M.S. at Yale University, working with Robert H. Crabtree. She received her chemistry Ph.D. from California Institute of Technology, where she worked for Nobel Laureate Robert H. Grubbs. After a National Institutes of Health postdoctoral fellowship at Princeton University with John T. Groves, she began her independent career at Michigan in 2003.
She has received a number of other accolades, including a 2006 National Science Foundation Career Award, a 2008 ACS Cope Scholar Award, selection as one of the “brilliant 10” in Popular Science magazine in 2009, and numerous awards from pharmaceutical and chemical companies.
And she’s regarded as a superb teacher and mentor. Having now stepped into more senior roles, “I’ve started to realize how much work people did on my behalf—how much of other people’s time has gone into my having a successful career,” Sanford says. “It’s important for me to give back.”
Sanford will present award addresses before the ACS Divisions of Inorganic and of Organic Chemistry.
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