Monthly Archives: December 2014

Letter from the Chair

IMG_0014As we approach the holiday season, I am inspired to reflect on the bounty of the Department of Chemistry & Biochemistry, and share with you some of the many things that make me very grateful.

I am grateful to our students and alumni, who are the best ambassadors of our programs and whose successes give us a tremendous sense of accomplishment.  Did you know there are 3260 undergraduate and 1480 graduate alumni of the Department?   Our alumni reside in all 50 states, 6 U.S. territories and 22 countries, helping to spread the word about the Maryland experience.  I would like to give a shout out to Dr. Bryan Dickinson (Biochemistry B.S., 2005), who recently visited and gave a departmental seminar, for his recent appointment to the chemistry faculty at the University of Chicago. Another shout out goes to  Dr. Willie May (Chemistry PhD, 1977), acting Director of the National Institute of Standards & Technology and Undersecretary of the Department of Commerce, for serving on the Board of Visitors of our College and, most remarkably, for taking the time to mentor our students and junior faculty. I would also like to recognize Phil Schneider, M. D. (Biochemistry BS, 1979), winner of our College Alumni Award.  Read down to Dr. Schneider’s profile to learn about how he is impacting University of Maryland students.

I am so proud of our current students, who are balancing very demanding majors with professional development and the fun of the new Big Ten experience. At the Spring 2014 commencement, we conferred exactly 100 ACS-certified undergraduate degrees – 49 in Chemistry and 51 in Biochemistry. Remarkably, 19 of these students double-majored, with Biological Sciences leading the 2nd-major pack (10 double-majors), followed by Computer Science, Math, and Art (2 double-majors each). Our students additionally earned second majors in Secondary Education, Physics, and Economics.  We are also extremely proud of the 30 new Chemistry and Biochemistry PhD’s and MS’s minted last year, and very grateful for the scholarship and fellowship support our students have attracted.  Read down to learn more about 4th year Chemistry Graduate Student Benjamin Roembke.

The accomplishments of our Faculty also deserve special recognition.   I am particularly happy to announce the tenured promotions of Dr. Nicole LaRonde and Dr. YuHuang Wang to Associate Professor.  Dr. LaRonde is a protein crystallographer researching ribosome biogenesis and protein pathogenesis related to the Ebola virus. Dr YuHuang Wang is a materials chemist who creates carbon-based materials for energy and sensing applications. Dr. Garyk Papoian, a theoretical chemist who performs multi-scale simulations of subcellular processes, was recently promoted to full Professor.  Dr. Chris Jarczynski was selected as a Distinguished University Professor, the highest honor the University bestows, in recognition for ground-breaking work on nonequilibrium statistical mechanics.   His discovery of the Jarczynski Inequality, a generalization of the 2nd Law of Thermodyamics, is widely regarded as the most important discovery in thermodynamics in the past 50 years.  Our faculty has attracted more than $11,600,000 in external funding over the past year.  Read down to learn about a new National Science Foundation grant in nanolithography awarded to Drs. Fourkas, Mullin, and Falvey.

The dedication of our faculty and staff to our core education mission is transforming the education and training experiences of our students. This year Dr. Earl Stone redesigned CHEM177 – our general chemistry laboratory for freshman majors – to provide students with hands-on access to state-of-the-art laboratory instrumentation and researcher-level safety training.   Dr. Lee Friedman has “flipped” his organic chemistry lecture courses, while Dr. Montague-Smith has received a grant from the University of Maryland System to introduce new technology tools in the organic chemistry “discussion” sections to promote active learning. Dr. William Walters, our ACS award winning nuclear chemist, enthralls honors students in a seminar course entitled “The Manhattan Project: A Century of Radioactivity, Nuclear Weapons, and Nuclear Power”, while Assistant Professor Zhihong Nie has developed a new course on “Interfaces: From Fundamentals to Nanoscience” that brings together graduate students from life science, physical science and engineering programs.

Chemistry and Biochemistry are the science of change – and the Department itself is undergoing important transformations.  Dr.  Michael P. Doyle, who served for 10 years as a highly dedicated Chair, will depart in January for a Chaired Professorship at the University of Texas at San Antonio.  We are very sorry to see Mike go, but happy that he has the opportunity to pursue new research directions and relocate to be closer to his family.  On another front, I am delighted to announce that Dr. Lai-Xi Wang, an ACS award winning chemical biologist with expertise in carbohydrate chemistry and glycoscience, will join the faculty as a Professor of Chemistry and Biochemistry beginning in January.   Wang, currently a professor in the School of Medicine, Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology and the Institute of Human Virology at the University of Maryland, Baltimore, (UMB), will strengthen and lead efforts to develop new research programs centered on chemical biology.  This field applies chemical tools and ideas to biological and medical problems, including creating and discovering new molecules with biological specificity for drug and vaccine development. A Symposium on Carbohydrate Chemistry is being planned to celebrate the addition of Dr. Wang to the faculty.

Below I share with you three stories that highlight recent achievements by our alumni, students and faculty.   For pictures and additional stories, please go to  And finally, I want to thank the generous alumni and parents who have donated gifts to our department. Your contributions go directly to our education and research programs, and impact students, faculty and staff in very meaningful ways.

With best regards,
Janice Reutt-Robey

Chemistry Researchers Advance Patterning Nanotechnology

Dr. John Fourkas, Dr. Amy Mullin and Dr. Daniel Falvey have been awarded a $1.5 million dollar National Science Foundation grant to fund cutting-edge research on Scalable Nanomanufacturing. The team, which includes Dr. Gottleib Oehrlein from the Department of Material Science & Engineering, uses three beams of visible light of different wavelengths to produce nanoscale features with the improved resolution required to produce high-density integrated circuits.

Moore’s Law, a mathematical rule, predicts that storage capacity on a dense integrated circuit doubles approximately every two years. Without new breakthroughs, the limits of this rule are about to be reached, because current technology cannot achieve sub-20-nm resolution.

This three-color photolithography method is designed for scalable, large-area, low-cost nanomanufacturing, and promises fundamentally new ways to put more information in even smaller spaces with the improved resolution required to produce high-density integrated circuits. In conventional approaches, one color of light is used to initiate the chemistry, and a second color is used to arrest it.  A two-color method has limited spatial resolution because the initiation of the chemistry competes with the deactivation. In the three color method, however, one color of light pre-activates the chemistry, a second color of light deactivates the molecules, and a third color of light transforms pre-activated molecules into activated molecules that then undergo chemistry. This approach provides a viable path to attaining sub-20-nm resolution for scalable nanomanufacturing in two and three dimensions. Because visible light is inexpensive to produce, propagate and manipulate, the method has the potential to lower the cost of cutting-edge nanomanufacturing by a factor of 10 or more.

Major industrial developers and end-users will be part of the project team’s collaborative process so that the transfer of this technology into practice can provide a major boost to American competitiveness in scalable nanomanufacturing. The new types of photochemistry that are being created through this work will help keep future products from being prohibitively expensive, keeping the cheap production benefit alive.

Additionally, this project team, by virtue of blending the disciplines of Organic Chemistry, Physical Chemistry, and Materials Engineering has created, and will continue to create over the life of the grant, an exceptional learning environment for their students by involving them in a true academic and industrial interdisciplinary collaboration.

Dominik Meltzer, a Materials Science and Engineering graduate student in this group, thinks this is an important opportunity.

“This [work] has helped make me more adaptable and nimble in my thinking.” Said Meltzer.

Phil Schneider Alumni of the Year

schneider_croppedOn April 10, Dr. Phil Schneider, class of ‘79, was honored with the 2014 Distinguished Alumni Award for the Chemistry and Biochemistry department. Dr. Schneider, an orthopedic surgeon and Medical Director at Holy Cross Hospital, credits his undergraduate experience at UMD for the course of his professional life.

“Getting my undergraduate degree at Maryland helped me focus on what I wanted to become. I love orthopedics, because we get to fix things that are wrong. In many other areas of medicine a doctor will be in the position of managing a chronic condition. The patient may not get worse, but they will never be better. But in orthopedics, we can often find the problem and fix it. The coolest thing my education has allowed me to do is help semi-paralyzed people to walk again.”

He credits the excellent program for the solid grounding it gave him.

“I found that, in my first and partly into my second year of medical school, what I was being taught I had already learned at Maryland. It was mainly review for me, and many of my other classmates who came from other schools were not as well prepared.”

When Dr. Schneider came to the University of Maryland, it was a much different place.

“Back in 1975, when I started, the school was a commuter school. There were around 40,000 students. I actually commuted the entire time I attended, driving in from Silver Spring.”

To make his college experience the best he could, Dr. Schneider joined a lot of organizations including becoming an ODK member and joining student government. But, he notes, there have been many amazing changes from then to the present.

“When the College Park campus became the flagship school in the 80’s a lot of work happened to make it an elite school. Entry requirements became tougher. Some programs were moved to other campuses. Dorms were built. It’s gratifying to see the University change, during my lifetime, from what was considered a run-of-the-mill public college into a top tier research institution.  It’s more like a private university now with regard to how the students are valued, and the type of community it has. It offers a private university education, but at a state school price.”

Dr. Schneider’s commitment to the community continues as he is on the board of trustees for the University of Maryland Foundation, is part of Friends of Men’s Basketball, and is also part of the Red Coat Society which supports football.  He also is conducting research with Dr. Frederick Khachik, lectures in the Neuroanatomy class with Dr. Joshua Singer, and gives lectures in the required professional development classes that help chemistry and biochemistry majors prepare for their careers.

When asked how he keeps up with all of his professional and avocational commitments, he joked that he “doesn’t sleep much.”

More seriously, however, education in general, and education in particular at Maryland, is a deeply important subject for him.

“Education is what changes a person’s life. It’s an equalizer. It is the greatest key to bettering our civilization.”

A Conversation with a Millard Alexander Fellowship Awardee: Benjamin Roembke

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAChemistry graduate student Benjamin Roembke entered the University of Maryland in 2010 to pursue his passion for chemistry and the life sciences, and has found much success here.  Working with Dr. Herman Sintim, he has used the tools of organic chemistry to probe the functioning of biological systems.   To recognize his accomplishments and support his graduate education, Ben was recently awarded a Millard and Lee Alexander Fellowship in Chemistry.

“This fellowship is so important because it provides me with freedom to focus on my research, rather than being forced to find a non-applicable, outside job.” said Roembke. “Thus it allows me to work more efficiently and hopefully expedite the graduation process. It even gave me a little time off to go and get married to my beautiful wife, Leslie!”

For Roembke, the fellowship could not have come at a better time, because it allowed him to focus on the exciting results his project was producing, and to publish his research (Roembke et al., Mol. Biosyt. 2014, 10, 1568).

His PhD studies are focused on how polymorphism (structural variation) impacts a key bacterial second messenger, cyclic diguanosine monophosphate (c-di-GMP).   This messenger determines the bacterial lifestyle, aka whether bacteria will be planktonic (free floating, single cells) or biofilm (surface attached colonies). Biofilm bacteria are particularly problematic as they are difficult to treat with traditional antibiotics.  An important factor that affects the biology of c-di-GMP is its polymorphism (ability to form clusters with distinct structures). For instance, WspR a protein that synthesizes c-di-GMP in Pseudomonas, has been shown to have an active site (A-site), responsible for the synthesis of c-di-GMP from two molecules of guanosine triphosphate (GTP) and an inhibitory site (I-site). The I-site binds a particular c-di-GMP dimer structure, which forms when c-di-GMP is at high concentrations. This dimer deactivates the prote

Ben’s most recent project was to study the thermodynamics of these c-di-GMP (and other cyclic dinucleotide) dimers by using synthetic analogs of the natural, preventing it from further synthesizing c-di-GMP.  This chemical feedback loop allows the protein to self-regulate so that c-di-GMP isn’t overproduced in the cell. It is a magnificent demonstration of how nature maintains efficiency and balance.

“This can potentially provide a new methodology for discovering new anti-biofilm drugs.”

Roembke holds a B.S. degree from Towson University, and has enjoyed the opportunity to be a part of the teaching mission of the University of Maryland.

“I really enjoy interaction with blossoming undergraduate scientists.” said Roembke. “Specifically, I have taught organic chemistry on several occasions. One thing I have found is organic chemistry is widely considered a stumbling block in the undergraduate curricula. It is my goal as a future educator to get rid of that stigma and show that organic chemistry can be easily understood through conceptual based learning. This has been a big advantage to Maryland as I have been given lots of freedom and responsibility in the classroom, which has really allowed me to grow as an educator. In addition to teaching positions, I am also considering some non-traditional career paths including nuclear energy and consulting. I think it would be fun to “play my hand” at something else for a time and see how I enjoy it.”


“I think my favorite part about becoming a PhD chemist at Maryland has been the general skillset with which it has provided me. The program has not only given me technical knowledge about my field but an ability to solve difficult problems through literature research and critical thinking. This is something that I believe makes me useful in many fields, which will allow me to keep my options open as I seek a career. Another joy of Maryland is that I am surrounded by a caring and devoted research, teaching and administrative faculty and staff. It has been a joy to meet such a diverse group of people that truly cares about your well-being.”

The Millard and Lee Alexander Graduate Fellowships in Chemistry were made possible through the generous support of theoretical chemistry faculty member Dr. Millard Alexander and his wife Lee.   In addition to Ben, three chemistry graduate students – Amanda Souna, Brittany Vinciguerra and Yi Yu – are supported by this endowed fellowship fund this year.