Alison Narayan’s career has been dedicated to following the promise of the new and unexpected.

When she arrived at the University of Michigan as a freshman from Frankenmuth, Michigan, she originally planned on studying political science with hopes of attending law school.

Her decision to take organic chemistry her first semester changed everything, setting her on a new path exploring the world of science.

“I loved it,” said Narayan, William R. Roush Assistant Professor and assistant professor of chemistry, LSA; and research assistant professor, Life Sciences Institute.

Alison Narayan, William R. Roush Assistant Professor and assistant professor of chemistry, works in her lab.
Alison Narayan, William R. Roush Assistant Professor and assistant professor of chemistry, originally planned to prepare for law school, but an organic chemistry class in her first undergraduate semester redirected her career toward science. (Photo by Daryl Marshke, Michigan Photography)

“Thinking about mechanisms and the different concepts, and looking at a molecule and thinking about all the different ways you could assemble it from different building blocks was really exciting to me,” Narayan said. “It was like little brain teasers.”

After gaining critical hands-on experience conducting research in a chemistry laboratory, Narayan eventually decided to pursue a Ph.D. in chemistry.

Despite some initial doubts if the degree program was the right next step, Narayan hasn’t looked back.

As an assistant professor of chemistry, Narayan is also exploring uncharted pathways in her research, which centers on innovations in chemistry and new ways to build molecules.

Her lab focuses on biocatalysis — a form of chemistry that uses enzymes in chemical reactions.

Biocatalysis allows researchers to selectively target specific sites on molecules for chemical reactions — leading to a more efficient process. The method also produces less waste and a cleaner waste stream, and can lower costs to create products like pharmaceuticals or pesticides.

“It’s a safe and fairly sustainable way to do chemistry,” Narayan said. “Often when we’re doing chemistry, you might use an organic solvent that’s flammable so it’s hazardous when you’re using it.

“In addition, if some of the metals that you’re using get left in your product, that could mean the drug can’t be used until it’s further purified, which takes more energy and time.”

When she’s not in the lab, Narayan works to create pathways for underrepresented groups to study science.

She’s one of the faculty advisers for F.E.M.M.E.S. (Women+ Excelling More in Math, Engineering and the Sciences), a U-M student group dedicated to closing gender and racial divides in science, technology, engineering and math fields.

The group, in part, brings young girls to campus to conduct science experiments, see labs and learn about these fields.

Narayan said she acts as a sounding board for the student group’s ideas and she helps members navigate barriers and identify resources at the university.

“As a woman in science, I want to see more women in science,” she said.

Narayan also serves on the graduate admissions committees for the Department of Chemistry and the Program in Chemical Biology.

She said this role provides the opportunity to advocate for students coming from backgrounds that are not seen as the “perfect mold.”

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“There’s the metric of grit — how hard did someone work to get the experiences that they have and how passionate are they about what they’re doing,” Narayan said.

“I think for grad school and in research especially, if you look at the metric of grit for how someone approaches the field and applies themselves, those are the people who are going to come here and truly excel and be successful because they want it and they’re committed to it.”

When it comes to forging a meaningful career, Narayan said part of her legacy will be built through her students and their professional journeys.

“Whether you’re going to make a discovery which is going to win you the next Nobel Prize is totally out of your control,” she said. “But if you invest in the people and doing good science together, that is 100 percent energy well spent.”

Q&A

What memorable moment in the workplace stands out?

When we have an ah-ha moment about a research project. That is the best!

What can’t you live without?

Headphones playing Taylor Swift to help me focus.

Name your favorite spot on campus?

Definitely the Diag in the fall, buzzing with optimism for the year ahead.

What inspires you?

Being at Michigan, it feels like anything is possible and being surrounded by people that are going after it — making discoveries, creating change.

What are you currently reading?

All of the documents I’m editing with students at work, and “The Day the Crayons Came Home” and “Dragons Love Tacos” at home.

Who had the greatest influence on your career path?

Mentors throughout my training that told me I could do it and encouraged me to keep going.

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