The Benchmark: 7 questions for Professor Marvin Miller. George and Winifred Clark Professor of Chemistry and Biochemistry

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Biography: Marvin Miller, the George and Winifred Clark Professor of Chemistry and Biochemistry, received his B.S. from North Dakota State University in 1971 and his Ph.D. from Cornell University in 1976.  He spent two years as an NIH postdoctoral fellow at the University of California, Berkeley prior to joining the department in 1977. He and his coworkers focus on new synthetic methodologies for the syntheses and study of biologically important compounds such as antibiotics, antifungals and anticancer agents. Among his accomplishments are over 270 publications, 22 patents, and over 200 invited lectures. He also has directed graduate research for 77 students, most at the doctoral level.

1) When did you realize you wanted to be a scientist and, more specifically, what led you to focus on organic chemistry? 

My science teachers in my high school (Assumption Abbey – a Benedictine monastery in Western North Dakota) really kindled my interest.  My chemistry teacher left a lot of information open that my classmates and I questioned and then my physics teacher, Fr. David, was awesome and filled us with the wonders of how and why things work from the atomic level on up.  Then, my sophomore year at North Dakota State, my organic teacher, Socrates Peter Pappas, came into the lab after the first lecture exam and assigned most of us to research groups.  He picked me and gave me an independent project.  When I showed him the results of an early experiment that, based on our 60 MHz NMR, worked surprisingly well, he was so excited that I was hooked on chemistry forever.

2) What is your favorite organic reaction and why?

My favorite organic reaction is the Lossen rearrangement since it converts an acid (carboxylic acid) into a base (amine) using the chemistry of hydroxamic acids.  Hydroxamic acids are amazingly versatile compounds that we have used to make bioactive compounds for nearly every therapeutic area from antibiotics to anti-inflammatory agents, anti-cancer agents, microbial iron transport agents, drug delivery systems and more.

3) What do you consider the grand challenge in synthetic organic/medicinal chemistry?

Keeping mankind one step ahead in combating diseases, especially the never ending war on infection.  Antibiotics are responsible for more than half of the more than 50% increase in life span in the last three generations.  Nothing, absolutely nothing, in science or medicine has had such a dramatically positive influence on humanity. Unfortunately, antibiotic resistance is evolving rapidly and there is inadequate support for new discovery efforts.  The fear that we will return to a preantibiotic era is not unrealistic.

4) You've been at Notre Dame for 35 years, so it's safe to say you like it here. Could you elaborate on what you like best about ND? 

Without a doubt the best parts of ND are the students and colleagues.  Our students at all levels are, for the most part, genuinely good people, interested in learning, not just for their own benefit but with good intentions to help others.

5) If you could have dinner with any three people of the past or the present, who would they be?

My extended family.  I wish so much that my children, their spouses and my grandchildren could all share a meal and extended time with Patty, me and our now deceased parents to share the many thoughts, and experiences and wisdom from our ancestors.  I would also really like to have a dinner event with all the students, postdocs, research associates, collaborators and other coworkers I have had together with my mentors (Prof. Socrates Peter Pappas at North Dakota State University, Prof. G. Marc Loudon, at Cornell, now at Purdue, and Prof. Henry Rapoport (dec) at UC Berkeley).

Of course I would love to have dinner with some of the early pioneers in chemistry and especially antibiotic science all together to get a broader perspective on how they were able to accomplish so much without all the amazing analytical instrumentation we have today. Finally, I would really like to have dinner with Christ to ask him how, while on this earth, he could convert water (non-organic molecule) into wine that contains ethanol (an organic, two carbon containing molecule).

6) Of what professional accomplishment are you proudest?  

Mentoring about 80 Ph.D.s, more than 60 postdocs and research associates and countless undergraduates, while learning so much together.

7) Organic chemists are people too. What does Professor Miller do to relax? 

Actually, I would really love to be able to spend time working in the lab myself rather than just enjoying learning vicariously with my coworkers.  The most relaxing moments I have are with my family, my wife Patty, our four (now grown) children, their spouses and our 6 grandsons (all age 4 and under, including triplets!).  Though I have not taken enough time for them, I also enjoy hiking, swimming (though it is still so hard), golfing (once or twice a year only unfortunately), fly fishing and woodworking (I built most of the furniture in our house while our children were growing up).  “Work” is also not always work as I enjoy discussions and interactions with colleagues and collaborators from around the world at meetings and still get excited about every new molecule I learn about.