Heemstra installed as the Charles Allen Thomas Professor in Chemistry

Heemstra installed as the Charles Allen Thomas Professor in Chemistry

Jennifer Heemstra, the Charles Allen Thomas Professor in Chemistry, delivered an address titled “Biomolecules do amazing things and I work with amazing people.”

Left to right: Gary Patti, the Michael and Tana Powell Professor of Chemistry; Jennifer Heemstra, the Charles Allen Thomas Professor in Chemistry; and Feng Sheng Hu, the Richard G. Engelsmann Dean of Arts & Sciences. (Photo: Rebecca Clark for Washington University)

On April 10, Jennifer Heemstra was installed as the Charles Allen Thomas Professor in Chemistry. The program included a welcome from Feng Sheng Hu, the Richard G. Engelsmann Dean of Arts & Sciences and Lucille P. Markey Distinguished Professor; an introduction by Gary Patti, the Michael and Tana Powell Professor of Chemistry; and the installation and medallion presentation by Dean Hu.

In her remarks, Heemstra shared her enthusiasm for biomolecules, particularly the DNA and RNA molecules that provide the code for all living things. She described how molecules can fit together with great precision, much like Lego bricks. “Our lab motto is that biomolecules can do amazing things,” she said.

Throughout her address, Heemstra gave credit to the other people in the lab. She highlighted the work of Alex Quillin, a graduate student developing a technique to track RNA edits in living cells, and Benoit Arnould, a postdoctoral researcher whose microscopy skills have made it possible to visualize individual strands of edited RNA.

“I have the most incredible job,” Heemstra said. “I get to work with this amazing group of students, postdocs, and researchers, and they are all so creative and driven and really fun.”

A leading advocate for mentorship and student well-being, Heemstra expressed gratitude for the culture at WashU. “When people at the university say they value mentoring and diversity, equity, and inclusion, they really mean it,” she said. “It’s all about equipping the next generation."

About Jennifer M. Heemstra

Jennifer (Jen) Heemstra earned a bachelor’s degree in chemistry from the University of California, Irvine, and a Ph.D. in chemistry from the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. Her undergraduate and graduate research experiences instilled in her a love of supramolecular chemistry, and during this time she also came to appreciate the exquisite capacity of biomolecules for molecular recognition and self-assembly. After completing her Ph.D. in 2005 and then spending a short time in industry, Heemstra pursued postdoctoral research at Harvard University from 2007 to 2010.

Heemstra started her independent career at the University of Utah and moved to Washington University in St. Louis in 2022, where she is currently chair of the Department of Chemistry. Her lab is focused on harnessing the capabilities of proteins and nucleic acids to address unmet needs in biomedicine and the environment. Research in the Heemstra lab is highly interdisciplinary, drawing upon techniques from molecular and cellular biology, organic synthesis, analytical chemistry, and materials science. Pursuing these diverse research interests requires an equally diverse team, and thus the Heemstra lab aims to cul­tivate an environment where difference of perspectives and life experiences is welcomed and supported.

Heemstra has been the recipient of the Army Research Office Young Investigator Award, National Science Foundation CAREER Award, Cottrell Scholar Award, and American Chemical Society’s Women Chemists Committee Rising Star Award.

She is also a passionate advocate for mentoring and diversity, equity, and inclusion; and she engages the broader academic community around these topics via her social media presence and professional development seminars and workshops. Outside of work, Heemstra enjoys spending time with her spouse and two sons, as well as rock climbing, cycling, and running.

About Charles Allen Thomas

Charles Allen Thomas, an internationally known industrial chemist who spent the majority of his career with Monsanto Company, established this professorship in Arts & Sciences in 1976.

Born in Lexington, Kentucky, he was primarily home-schooled until age 16 when he entered Transylvania University. He earned a master’s degree in 1924 from Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He later returned to Transylvania University, where he earned a Doctor of Science degree in 1933.

Dr. Thomas began his career developing ethyl gasoline with General Motors in Dayton, Ohio. In 1926 he and Carroll A. “Ted” Hochwalt founded Thomas and Hochwalt Laboratories of Dayton, which conducted research for major corporations. The company merged with Monsanto in 1936, and Dr. Thomas became Monsanto’s director of research. He moved to St. Louis in 1946, led Monsanto as president for nine years and then as chairman of the board from 1960 to 1965.

Dr. Thomas’ achievements include contributions in synthetic resins, polystyrenes, synthetic rubber, and rocket propellants. Over 75 patents are in his name.

He chaired Washington University’s Board of Trustees from 1966 to 1980 and died in 1982.