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Faculty Spotlight: Professor Melanie Chiu

Professor Melanie Chiu joined Michigan State University’s Department of Chemistry in January 2023, bringing with her an expertise and passion for organic chemistry—a focus she traces to her time as an undergraduate at Dartmouth College. Chiu remembers struggling with introductory general chemistry courses her first year. The pieces of the class seemed unrelated to one another, and there were many of them, but they came together the very next year in organic chemistry. “It was beginning to understand just how the structure of molecules impacted their function, and by extension, the world around us,” Chiu says. She even recalls going through her course textbooks to get extra practice with complicated problems, an excitement for understanding that’s resulted in a lifetime of scientific pursuit. 

Headshot of Professor Melanie Chiu
Professor Melanie Chiu. Courtesy Photo. 

Chiu completed her undergraduate thesis on developing methods to make cancer photodynamic therapy compounds before earning her Ph.D. at the University of California, Berkeley. During her graduate studies, she focused on studying the reactivity of organometallic compounds and leveraged that understanding to develop new ways to make carbon-nitrogen and carbon-phosphorus bonds, which are critical to the function of medicinal and agricultural compounds. 

One foundational aspect of Professor Chiu’s role as a researcher is helping others develop a love for organic chemistry. She understands it’s often an intimidating subject, and she strives to make it enjoyable and engaging for her students. “Most students will have little exposure to organic chemistry before their first class,” Chiu notes. “The topic is also very cumulative. It’s like a fast-moving escalator, and it can be tricky to jump on if you miss that very first step. Thankfully, there’s been so much innovation in chemistry pedagogy since the days of ‘Here’s your textbook, here’s your midterm, off you go.’ The goal is to understand what might be giving students trouble, and how we can move forward, because it really is a powerful and beautiful subject.”  

Chiu says she’s thrilled to join a department where there’s a unique intellectual spark among students and faculty. She especially appreciates the degree of research infrastructure and support available here at MSU, including state-of-the-art NMR facilities, glassblowers, and stockrooms. She believes resources like these will allow her and her students to push the limits of what they can achieve as scientists.  

Presently, Chiu’s research group is in the final stretch of setting up their lab space: “To date, we’ve had two amazing graduate students come onboard, and have been making use of computational chemistry as we get things up and running.” The Chiu lab will primarily focus on synthesizing polymers to tailor plastics to have specified properties. “Broadly, we’re a polymer chemistry lab, so we’re interested in understanding why plastics are the way they are and using these insights to make improvements,” Chiu explains. “While this might seem a little abstract, what’s exciting is the power and the breadth of this fundamental approach. These studies can help us design better degradable plastics in packaging, adhesive products, electronic components of Organic Light Emitting Diodes (OLEDs), or even better sutures and bone graphs. It’s a huge range of potential applications.” 

For the latest updates on Professor Chiu’s work, you can visit the Chiu Research Group website, or follow the Chiu Crew on Twitter. 

This faculty spotlight was completed with the help of Chrissy Schumm.