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Melanie Sanford: The Interview

Melanie Sanford

Melanie Sanford

Melanie Sanford, a self-described "organic-inorganic chemist," is an assistant professor at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. She was born and raised in Providence, Rhode Island, and attended Yale University and (for her Ph.D.) the California Institute of Technology (Caltech), where she worked with Robert Grubbs, a 2005 Nobel laureate in chemistry. She then did a 2-year postdoc at Princeton University, working in the laboratory of Jay Groves III.

"Melanie's infectious enthusiasm and energy inspire those working around her," writes Grubbs in an e-mail. "In the past several years, no one else in the organic community has had as great an impact so rapidly. She is also a genuinely nice person." At just 31, Sanford has already accumulated a long list of scientific honors and awards (see sidebar). Earlier this year, her department decided to put her up early for tenure.

The interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

Science's Next Wave: Tell us about your research. The emphasis is on "green chemistry"?

Melanie Sanford: I would say that's the ultimate goal. Whenever you're doing catalysis, the idea is that you'd like to get away from a stoichiometric quantity of chromium or mercury or thallium or some other toxic metal and use something hopefully less toxic but also in a catalytic--instead of in a stoichiometric--amount. So that's what we work on in my lab. Ultimately, what I'd like to do is [discover] new catalytic reactions that make people think differently about how they put molecules together. What we're trying to do is discover new catalytic activity in cleaner systems that will ultimately result in greener processes. But the day-to-day focus is more on reactivity rather than ultimately being able to scale this up.

SNW: How did you become interested in this kind of work--and in science in general?

M. S.: It was something that I fell into rather than something I was passionate about when I was growing up. I always did well in school. I liked school, but I never felt any big draw to science particularly. But when I was in the 11th grade, I had a really great chemistry teacher, Walter Friel at Classical High School in Providence, Rhode Island. And when I was in school they had these book prizes, and the one that I won was the Rensselaer Polytechnic Science and Technology prize. So I thought, "Hey, maybe I am pretty good at science." I never thought I was bad at it, but I never thought I was particularly better at it than anything else.

In college, I started out premed since it seemed like everybody was premed in college. Then I started looking around, and I thought, "This is so boring. Everybody is premed, and I don't want to be like everyone else." So then I had a great chemistry teacher in college too my freshman year--it was Mike McBride, who taught the first semester of that course--and so I thought, "Chemistry is pretty cool."

It was always small things that pushed me in that direction. And then I started doing research, and I got really excited about it and went to graduate school.

SNW: Speaking of graduate school, how did you end up doing work related to the 2005 Nobel Prize in chemistry?

M. S.: When I started at Caltech, I wanted to get into a particular group. The professor said he didn't have any space even though he took two other students that year. It was clear that he just didn't want me, so I joined another group--it was Jackie Barton's group, which I was enthusiastic about at the time. I was there for about a year. I love Jackie, but it wasn't the research that I wanted to do. On a whim I thought, "Maybe I'll just talk to Bob Grubbs just to see if he might be interested," but I wasn't that enthusiastic because I wanted a professor who would not have such a big group and would give me a lot of personal attention. I thought that was what I needed. So I went to Bob. He has a group of 30, and he's always traveling, and he's superfamous and all that. But I joined that group, and it was the best decision I ever made. I'm so lucky that worked out. It was one of those things where it was very traumatic at the time, but it ended up being one of the best things that ever happened to me.

SNW: What did you take away from your postdoc in Jay Groves's lab at Princeton ?

M. S.: I went there because I wanted to do something different. I was interested in catalysis from the perspective of how enzymes and proteins and biological systems do it. When I went there, I didn't actually do that. I worked on a bunch of things the first year, and then I had an idea. Jay works on catalysis in biological systems, and he also works on model systems where you make a model that you take out of the biological system and use it in a beaker or wherever. I started thinking about those model systems for reactions that really aren't biological reactions, something that it really wasn't specifically designed for, and that led me down a different path. The thing we were particularly interested in was taking olephins and turning them into amines. This is a reaction that from an industrial standpoint is potentially a really important way of making amines, but it's been something that's been very difficult to catalyze. Because I had a background in catalysis and organic synthesis and industry and all that, I saw that I could apply biological model systems to that and developed a strategy for doing that.

Melanie Sanford's Awards

• Boehringer Ingelheim New Investigator Award in Organic Chemistry
• Amgen Young Investigator Award
• Bristol-Myers Squibb "Freedom to Discover" award in organic synthesis
• Alfred P. Sloan Research Fellow
• Research Corporation Cottrell Scholar Award
• AstraZeneca Excellence in Chemistry Award
• GlaxoSmithKline Chemistry Scholars Award
• Abbott Young Investigator Award
• National Science Foundation CAREER award

SNW: You mentioned industrial experience; when did you get industrial experience?

M. S.: Bob [Grubbs]] had several companies that he started, and the group had close collaborations with them; we would get catalysts from them and give catalysts to them. It was a very fluid situation in terms of interacting with people at the company, so we got a pretty good sense of that aspect, good and bad.

SNW: When you got to Michigan, you had to start up your own research program. Did you go in knowing exactly what you were planning to do? Did you feel you had to have a break with what you had done before?

M. S.: I did feel like I needed to have a break because I didn't want to be in a position where I was working on something similar to what my previous advisers were working on. Bob [Grubb]'s view is, "Pick an important problem." So I looked around, and I thought about what I wanted to work on, and I picked an area and some general approaches to solving the problem that I wanted to solve. We--the group--got pretty lucky in that we had a pretty big hit on what was one of my original ideas, right away. This is not often the case with people who are starting their academic careers, but I did go in a direction that's similar to something that I proposed when I was applying for jobs. [It was] a very small thing--a small step towards a big goal--but because we got this big hit, things have gone in directions that I would not have been able to anticipate.

People say you make your luck, and that's true to some degree, but there is a component of luck to it when you end up in the right place at the right time. I guess the thing is, you do get lucky when you get an initial hit, but then the question is, what do you do with it? And I think that's where it's not luck anymore--figuring out what the important things are and what to do.

SNW: Where did your initial ideas come from? What was the process like?

M. S.: The way things work is that when you apply for these jobs, you have to supply three research proposals, three directions that you're going to take. And then when you go to interview for these jobs, a big component of the interview is that you get up and give a presentation about what you're proposing to do, and the faculty are quite critical and ask a lot of very pointed questions about what you're proposing. The summer I was trying to think about ideas, I was filled with angst about how "Oh, this is not a good idea," or "Maybe this isn't that important." I think people are very self-critical at that phase.

I realized from talking to people that one of the most important things in applying for jobs is being able to make a case for why they should give you, say, half a million dollars in start-up money and a lab. I guess I was trying to pick problems that if you could solve them, people would think, "That's a very good accomplishment." If you pick a problem like that, people will be impressed that you're trying to solve that problem. And if you do solve that problem, looking back you'll feel good about it.

SNW: I saw on your Web site that you hold group meetings at 7 p.m.; why so late?

M. S.: One of the challenges of starting out your group is figuring out how to get your students to have a good work ethic. One of the approaches that I saw a lot at Caltech is that professors would tell their students that they needed to work x hours a day. I think one of the professors at Caltech said it was 9 in the morning until 11 at night with a half-hour break for lunch and an hour break for dinner. I guess my feeling was that there were more subtle ways to encourage people that they should be coming in at night and at least one day on the weekend. [So] with another group here, we have our group meetings at 7 p.m., and we get out at about 9. It's not to say that you need to be here every [night]--but you ought to be here at least some nights. We also have literature group meetings on Saturday afternoons, once a month. During football season, that doesn't work out so well.

SNW: Online, you have a "welcome kit" that's full of detailed information on stuff like washing glassware. How did that come about?

M. S.: This is something I came up with pretty much on my own--though some of my colleagues here had related things, a booklet of general procedures for the group. You don't remember when you start this job how little you know when you start graduate school. The students are fantastic, but they just don't know that much. One of the frustrating things when I had first started this job--there would be dirty glassware up in the cabinet, and I thought, "How can you not know how to wash glassware?" So I decided I'd be very explicit about how to clean glassware. So now if there's dirty glassware, I can just say, "Go read the group manual." You can't assume anything.

SNW: Tell me about your personal life. Any dual-career or family-related complexities?

M. S.: I just got married in May. My husband is also a chemist; we got our Ph.D.s together at Caltech. He also works here at Michigan in the chemistry department. He is a research scientist. One of the reasons we were so excited about coming to Michigan is that they have a really great program for spouses. There are a lot of dual-career couples, and they're really accommodating in helping spouses find positions.

[The University of Michigan has] a special office, associated with the provost's office, dedicated to the spouses of employees [who are] hired to help them find jobs. The provost's office also dedicates money to this. If your spouse can find a position at Michigan--and they'll help--the provost's office will pay half the salary for that position. It's an inducement for the department.

Michigan has been really forward thinking about [work-life issues]. Another example is, one of the big problems for women in science is having children. There's this big conundrum when you're pretenure: Do you take that extra year that is added to your tenure clock, or do people view that as "She got an extra bonus because she had a child?" Michigan has said that if you have a child, you get a semester off from all your obligations--for men and for women. If your spouse has a child or you have a child yourself, you take a semester off. In our department, it's just part of the culture. It's just expected.

SNW: You have two African-American graduate students. African Americans are rare in chemistry. How did you end up with two of them working as graduate students in your laboratory?

M. S.: They are people that I particularly targeted. I was pretty active in trying to get them to come to Michigan and trying to get them to join my group. I thought they were great, and I also think it's really important to have diversity.

SNW : Any take-home message you'd like to leave us with?

M. S.: A lot of people were encouraging me along the way and telling me that they thought that I could do it and that I was good at it--something I wouldn't necessarily have realized myself. If you think someone's doing a good job or is smart, you think that they know that. Sometimes it's really important to tell people that and to encourage them in an overt way.

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