Michelle M. Millar was a liquid-nitrogen-chugging, helium-breathing, premier high-spin synthetic inorganic chemist. At least those are a few of the things people who shared her life remember about her.
Millar, a chemistry professor at the State University of New York, Stony Brook, passed away untimely at age 64 from an apparent heart attack in February 2011. Her chemistry friends, students, classmates, and colleagues, including her husband, SUNY Stony Brook chemistry professor Stephen A. Koch, gathered here in Philadelphia at the ACS meeting to pay homage to her during a symposium in the Division of Inorganic Chemistry on metalloenzymes and their functions.
“Michelle had an eventful chemical career,” Koch recalled. She trained with some of the best inorganic chemists around. After obtaining her B.S. degree from UCLA in 1968 doing undergraduate research with Alan L. Balch (now at UC Davis), she earned a Ph.D. in 1975 at MIT, where she worked with iron-sulfur protein specialist Richard H. Holm (now at Harvard). She then carried out postdoctoral research with inorganic chemistry legends F. Albert Cotton at Texas A&M University and Earl L. Muetterties at Cornell University. As a postdoc, she characterized the first example of a compound containing a tungsten-tungsten quadruple bond, as well as the first example of a compound with a square-planar carbon atom.
At Stony Brook, Millar specialized in the design and synthesis of transition-metal complexes as models for metalloenzymes, Koch related. She recognized that much of the unusual metal chemistry that takes place inside proteins is possible because the organic limbs of proteins serve as sterically congested ligands to control access to the reactive metal centers. Among other achievements, Millar’s group prepared analogs to the oxidized [Fe4S4] cluster center in the electron-transfer protein rubredoxin, and her group synthesized molecules that mimic nickel-containing hydrogenase enzymes. Koch said he buried her with laminated pictures of some of her favorite molecules.
As the symposium speakers attested, Millar shared her love of chemistry through teaching. Many students will never forget her demonstrations, Koch said, which often included the exotic (but safe for the trained professional!) practices of drinking liquid nitrogen and then breathing out nitrogen fog, exploding hydrogen balloons with a burst of flame and a bang, and breathing helium with humorous vocal effects.
She often took her sideshow outside the classroom, making presentations in the local community. Millar also loved creating chemistry T-shirts, and she frequently gave multitudes of them away to students.
Another of Millar’s legacies was contributing to the gender revolution in science. When Millar started graduate school at MIT in 1968, many professors only begrudgingly accepted women graduate students, Koch noted. That was a time when the majority of research universities didn’t have and had never seriously considered hiring a female chemistry professor, he said. “Her greatest satisfaction was the fact that, along with other women of her generation, she helped to break down the barriers that had limited the career opportunities for women chemists,” Koch added. One of her favorite things to tell young women scientists was, “you are smart, capable, and worthy.”
MIT’s Stephen J. Lippard, with whom Millar once took a sabbatical, said she was inspiring and exciting to have around the lab. He summed up Millar by describing her this way: “Michelle’s joyful spirit, refreshingly blunt style, and unabashed passion are greatly missed. She was really wonderful.”
This post was written by senior correspondent Steve Ritter.
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