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Synthesis

Ipatieff Prize

by Lila Guterman
February 4, 2013 | APPEARED IN VOLUME 91, ISSUE 5

Sanford
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Credit: Courtesy of Melanie Sanford
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Credit: Courtesy of Melanie Sanford

Sponsored by the Ipatieff Trust Fund

Growing up,Melanie S. Sanford was interested in a career in politics. In college, she toyed with the idea of going to medical school—and with studying art history. In graduate school, she didn’t plan to go into academe. But she apparently ended up right where she belongs, doing groundbreaking organometallic chemistry. Sanford, the 37-year-old Arthur F. Thurnau Professor of Chemistry at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, is the winner of this year’s prize.

Sanford is known for developing practical catalytic methods to activate carbon-hydrogen bonds. She uses palladium complexes with the metal in a high oxidation state, which had previously been overlooked as useful catalysts. Robert H. Grubbs, California Institute of Technology Nobel Laureate and Sanford’s Ph.D. adviser, says her palladium work constitutes “a completely new approach that has been a surprise to those in the field.”

Along with establishing the synthetic utility of high-valent Pd to transform C–H bonds—as well as alkenes and alkynes—into other functional groups, Sanford has also worked out the reaction mechanisms. Previous hypotheses that high-valent Pd played a role in catalysis had proven incorrect. Research had suggested, Sanford says, that Pd(III) or Pd(IV) “would be very difficult to access under catalytically relevant conditions. When we proposed it, people thought this would be another example that would prove to be nanoparticles or Pd(0) catalysis.” But as she later demonstrated, her catalysts’ high-valent Pd was key to their activity.

Her Michigan colleague John Montgomery, a professor of chemistry, says that Sanford “has a swing-for-the-fences mentality in her research.” He praises her work “to develop new transformations and, in the process, elucidate the key mechanistic features that will guide work from investigators worldwide.” She has been remarkably successful on that front, he says. “She changes the way that people think about problems.”

Sanford has in recent years begun investigating how to catalytically transform carbon dioxide and methane to fuels or other useful molecules. Her work in that area, Grubbs says, “suggests that she is on her way to another breakthrough.”

The Ipatieff Prize adds to a remarkable series of research honors for Sanford. Among many other awards, she won a MacArthur Foundation Fellowship, better known as a “genius grant”; from ACS, she won the Award in Pure Chemistry, the National Fresenius Award, and an Arthur C. Cope Scholar Award; and she received the BASF Catalysis Award. Sanford expresses pride in also having won teaching awards at the University of Michigan.

Sanford is married to chemist Antek Wong-Foy, an entrepreneur and research chemist at Michigan. They have a four-year-old son, Henry. She grew up in Providence, R.I., and went to Yale University, where she did undergraduate research with Robert H. Crabtree. After her graduate studies with Grubbs at Caltech, Sanford did postdoctoral work with John T. Groves at Princeton University. She has worked at Michigan since 2003.

Sanford will present the award address before the ACS Division of Inorganic Chemistry.

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