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Department of Chemistry
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Michelle M. Francl

Research Interests

My scholarly work is located in both chemistry, mathematics and the humanities. One area of reasearch spans topology and chemistry, designing molecules with intriguing topologies. The second scholarly space I inhabit sits on the border between chemistry and the humanities, where my interests center on how chemists work and how they understand the work they do.

I also write about chemistry for more general audiences, at my blog, The Culture of Chemistry, and occasionally for other outlets, such as Slate and Nature Chemistry. The recently published Oxford Companion to Sugar and Sweets include several of my essays, including one on the sugar of lead and you can listen to a recent interview about some of this writing at On The Media.

Theories of chemistry

What makes a molecule beautiful, to a chemist?  Does it matter that chemists use the term topology in wayCover of Nature Chemistrys that a mathematician would not recognize?  Does the design of the built space play a role in the gendering of science? As scholarly work in the humanities ought to do, my explorations of chemists’ approaches to their work are intended to provoke a “subtle altering of opinion about ideas long and securely held" and to help chemist to surface issues that effect the course of their work.



Chemical theory

It is now possible for chemists to routinely probe questions of chemical structure and reactivity without recourse to a traditional laboratory. Advances in theoretical and computational chemistry have enabled chemists to extract reliable answers from calculations for many systems.

The mere ability to accurately calculate the structures of complex molecules is not always entirely satisfying. A true grasp of the chemistry requires an understanding of the intrinsic structural and physical factors that govern structure. A case in point are the [n]mobiusenes, condensed aromatic molecules which mimic Moebius strips. Larger molecules are less strained than their smaller counterparts, but all show a counterintuitive localization of the twist. One imagines that the molecule would be less strained if the twist were distributed evenly around the molecule. What is the impetus for the localization? What are the consequences for the molecular reactivity? The answers to these questions can be found by mixing computational chemistry with a dash of topology and a generous dollop of differential geometry. My research group is taking an interdisciplinary approach to this and related problems.

Selected Publications

Scents and sensibility, Nature Chemistry, 7, 265-266 (2015).

Are corporations putting feathers in your food? Slate, 18 February 2015.

Sugar of lead, M.M. Francl in Oxford Companion to Sugar and Sweets, ed. D. Goldstein, Oxford University Press, 2015. p 397

Sex and the citadel of science, M.M. Francl, Nature Chemistry, 3, 670-673 (2011).

Full CV here.