Organometallic chemist Melanie S. Sanford is among this year’s 22 new MacArthur fellows named by the John D. & Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. Sanford, of the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, and the other fellows will each receive $500,000 in unrestricted funds over the next five years, an award popularly dubbed the “genius grant.”
Sanford’s team is best known for developing ways to transform the ubiquitous, but often inert, carbon-hydrogen bond into other functional groups. What makes her team’s methods possible is high-oxidation-state palladium, a form that once was rarely used by chemists. Another of her group’s calling cards is the in-depth study of each transformation’s mechanism.
In recent years, Sanford’s lab has turned its attention to discovering catalysts that can mediate new, less costly, and less energy-intensive routes to methanol and phenol, both important chemical feedstocks. Among her long-term goals are developing sequences of catalysts that might convert carbon dioxide emissions back into fuel in the form of methanol.
“I was stunned” to receive a phone call from the foundation, Sanford says. “It was completely out of the blue.”
Sanford has since moved from the initial surprise to figuring out how best to take advantage of the award. “It’s exciting and challenging in a way—most other money is earmarked for specific things,” she says. “I’m interested in the possibility of starting some totally new projects—things I’ve been thinking about but where I haven’t had time to get preliminary results.”
Since 1981, 850 people have been named MacArthur fellows. Sanford is one of nine scientists to be named a fellow this year and is thrilled that the award provides her with the opportunity to show her enthusiasm for her work with new audiences. “I think it’s important for people to recognize how much catalysis and organometallic chemistry—things that can seem esoteric when people first hear about them—have contributed to society,” she says. “Anything that gets just a few more people interested in science, and in organometallic chemistry in particular, is just fantastic.”