Skip to main content
Skip to navigation

Chemistry Professor’s Award Forms Bond With German University

Nearly a quarter of a century of research and teaching provides University of Missouri students with basic skills

August 25th, 2010

Story Contact: MU News Bureau, 573-882-6211, munewsbureau@missouri.edu
Michael Harmata, Norman Rabjohn Distinguished Professor of Chemistry at the University of Missouri.

Michael Harmata, Norman Rabjohn Distinguished Professor of Chemistry at the University of Missouri.

COLUMBIA, Mo. – For 24 years Michael Harmata, Norman Rabjohn Distinguished Professor of Chemistry at the University of Missouri, has been researching sub-microscopic connections that make up the molecules of life. Now his work has been recognized on an international level.

Harmata works with students to build molecules containing rings of seven carbon atoms. Harmata and his students invent the tools needed to combine atoms in different ways to create new molecules, focusing on a process called pericyclic reactions. That basic research has sometimes led to interesting discoveries, such as the preparation and testing of a compound called pseudopteroxazole, which possesses anti-tuberculosis properties.  Harmata’s team also has invented processes like the retro-Nazarov reaction, an organic reaction thought impossible only a decade ago.

Harmata said that these pathways are just by-products of the scientific process, and that the students who learn this basic research use that knowledge to make developments in fields such as pharmaceutical and petroleum industries.

“My work here is basic research, so we’re not really out to find new drugs or cures – although we have had some success in that area…chance favors the prepared mind,” Harmata said. “We’re just people who are interested in how molecules interact and react, and we use that information to build tools, much like a contractor building his own hammer. Helping students graduate is the most important thing I do and it’s good to know that this hard work is paying off.”

Harmata recently received the Liebig Professorship award from the Justus-Liebig University in Giessen, Germany, which connects him to one of the greatest organic chemists in the 19th century, Justus von Liebig, who is often considered the founder of the chemistry curriculum used today in many universities. Harmata worked in Germany in 1998 – 1999 and 2008, and his work with students there earned him the award, much like Harmata’s students at the University of Missouri.

“To have my work recognized, as well as to have the University of Missouri acknowledged internationally, is one of the highest recognitions my work can achieve,” Harmata said. “The students that graduate are pushing innovation, and ultimately, that’s an extension of me, just as I am related to Professor von Liebig through a number of generations of outstanding organic chemists.”

--30--