When Melanie Sanford talks about chemistry, her words speed up, her smile grows wider and her hands fly as she explains a concept.
“You can think about putting molecules together like a puzzle,” she says, bringing her palms together.
“And if we design catalysts to break up a carbon-hydrogen bond in a new way, we can open up different ways of putting those jigsaw puzzle pieces together into a molecule in a way that generates less waste.”
That’s a simplified version of what Sanford has worked on for the last 10 years. She studies green chemistry, with the goal of reducing the amount of energy needed to make chemicals while also producing less waste. Her team has also taken on the task of designing a way to turn carbon dioxide back into fuel.
“It’s amazing to be doing this at Michigan, because there’s so much room for collaboration,” says Sanford, the Moses Gomberg Collegiate Professor of Chemistry.
Her lab has worked with chemical engineers to use metal catalysts in battery operation and with doctors in the Medical School on medical imaging. “These new ways of putting molecules together could make medical imaging faster, cheaper, and less wasteful,” she says.
The MacArthur Foundation noticed her passion for and proficiency in organic chemistry and awarded her one of its grants in 2011.
“They don’t tell you you’re nominated, and one day I got a call as I was on the way to the airport to give a lecture in Scotland. They told me I had received the fellowship. I called my husband before I boarded, but couldn’t tell anyone else for months. I still can’t believe it actually happened,” Sanford says.
Sanford was no stranger to being recognized for her work, though — a few months before she was named as a MacArthur Fellow, she received an Arthur F. Thurnau professorship, an honor bestowed for outstanding contributions to undergraduate education.
“That distinction was really meaningful,” says Sanford. “Teaching and mentorship are ways of giving back. I try to participate in events that focus on women in science. I was greatly influenced by those sorts of things, and it’s very important and valuable to me.”
Although Sanford spends much of her time focused on chemistry — her husband is a chemist, too, so her work sometimes goes home with her — she also enjoys art.
“I really love going to museums when I travel,” she says. She and her husband have a 6-year-old son, and “sports of all kind have become increasingly interesting.” The family’s favorite teams include the New England Patriots, the Oklahoma City Thunder and the Michigan Wolverines.
Q and A
What moment in the classroom or lab stands out as the most memorable?
A few years ago, my grad students thought it would be so funny if I taught my Chem 210 class dressed as Scooby Doo. I did it and they were right, it was very entertaining.
What can’t you live without?
My phone. My husband is not very happy about that, but it’s true.
What is your favorite spot in Ann Arbor?
County Farm Park. I always go there with my son, and we play football.
What inspires you?
What are you currently reading?
I buy and read Sports Illustrated whenever I fly. I can’t do anything without getting obsessed with it, so I have had to force myself not to start books.
Who had the greatest influence on your career path?
My Ph.D. adviser, Bob Grubbs, who won the Nobel Prize in 2005. He is not only an amazing scientist, but also an incredibly wonderful and interesting person.