Michelle Millar, 1946-2011
It is with great sadness that we report the sudden passing of Prof. Michelle Millar of the Chemistry Department on Sunday, February 13, 2011 from an apparent heart attack.
Prof. Millar obtained her bachelor’s degree from UCLA and her Ph.D. from MIT, where she worked with Richard Holm. She also carried out postdoctoral research with Albert Cotton at Texas A & M and with Earl Muetterties at Cornell. After 7 years on the faculty at New York University, Prof. Millar joined the Chemistry Department at Stony Brook in 1985.
Prof. Millar was a premier synthetic inorganic chemist. As a postdoc, she characterized the first example of a compound containing a tungsten-tungsten quadruple bond, and the first example of a compound with a square planar carbon atom. A molecule that she synthesized had the shortest distance ever found between two metal atoms, a record that was broken only after 30 years. As a faculty member, Prof. Millar specialized in the design and synthesis of new transition metal complexes as models for metalloenzymes. She recognized early on that much of the unusual metal chemistry that takes place inside proteins is possible because the proteins serve as sterically congested ligands, controlling access to the reactive metal centers. Prof. Millar pioneered the development of sterically encumbered thiolate ligands, and the use of these ligands to prepare metal complexes as models of metalloenzymes, an approach that has been adopted by numerous inorganic chemistry research groups around the world. She and coworkers prepared and characterized analogs to the oxidized center in the electron transfer protein, rubredoxin, and she characterized the first and only analog for the oxidized FeS cluster in the ferredoxin proteins. In recent years, her group has concentrated on analogs for the nickel-containing enzyme hydrogenase which catalyzes the technologically important reaction: 2H+ + 2 e— = H2.
Prof. Millar started graduate school at a time when many professors only begrudgingly accepted women graduate students, and the vast majority of research universities did not have and never had seriously considered hiring a female chemistry professor. 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. She was very proud that the Stony Brook Chemistry Department had seven women faculty members.
Prof. Millar loved teaching undergraduates, and many students will never forget her chemistry demonstrations: drinking liquid nitrogen, exploding hydrogen balloons, breathing helium. She took her “show” outside the classroom, making presentations at Parents Day and at her church's family day.
Prof. Millar loved creating chemistry T-shirts and frequently gave them to the students in her class. She was excited to teach CHE 132 with Prof. David Hanson this semester, and her husband had almost convinced her that she really could not buy T-shirts for the 1000+ students in the class. Prof. Millar’s generosity came through in many other ways. With members of the Career Center staff, she maintained the three large flower boxes at the bottom of the Zebra Path. She worked with Kevin Kelly to create the garden outside the University Café, and when her husband Prof. Stephen Koch was gravely ill in 1999, she took it upon herself to renovate the abandoned flower garden outside the hospital cafeteria.
Prof. Millar also displayed remarkable financial generosity toward the university. Her financial contributions helped in the establishment of the University Café, and with her husband she endowed an annual lectureship in the chemistry department. (She made sure that the first lecture would be legendary when she arranged for the university cheerleaders and the marching band to greet the speaker.)
Prof. Millar was very active in the Inorganic Division of the American Chemical Society, and served as the Program Chair for the division from 2009 until her death. She was a member of the National Institutes of Health, Metallobiochemistry Study Section (1992-96). She held a visiting professorship at MIT for two years with a National Science Foundation Fellowship, and served for nearly a decade on the visiting committee for the MIT Chemistry Department, where she was very active in empowering women chemistry graduate students. MIT gave her the Edwin S. Webster-Abby Rockefeller Mauze Award in 1990 in support of her work. The Stony Brook students gave her the Most Outstanding Advisor Award as part of the Campus Life Awards in 2003 and made her a Distinguished Member in the Stony Brook Chapter of the National Society of Collegiate Scholars in 2005.
In everything that she did, Prof. Millar showed remarkable creativity, enthusiasm and warmth. Prof. Stephen Lippard of MIT described her this way: “Generous in spirit and lavish in her praise of others, Michelle was an extraordinary person. We will miss her tremendously.”