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.
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“Suppose that water contracted on freezing, that is, became more dense rather than less dense. Ice would then sink to the bottoms of lakes and oceans rather than float. This ice would be insulated from the sun so that oceans, with the exception of a thin surface layer of liquid in warm weather, would be permanently frozen solid (the water at great depths even in tropical oceans is close to 4 C, its temperature of maximum density). The reflection of sunlight by these frozen oceans and their cooling effect on the atmosphere would also be much colder than at present; that is, Earth would have a permanent ice age. Furthermore, since life apparently evolved in the ocean, it seems unlikely that life could have developed at all if ice contracted on freezing.”
-Voet and Voet, Biochemistry
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