Chemistry recruits new faculty, 'Rising Star' department chair

Following a nationwide search, Jennifer Heemstra will become the new chair of the Department of Chemistry.

Chemist Jennifer Heemstra will join the Arts & Sciences faculty this July as the Charles Allen Thomas Professor of Chemistry. Currently a faculty member and director of faculty recruiting and development at Emory University, Heemstra is a highly regarded researcher whose work focuses on harnessing the molecular recognition and self-assembly properties of nucleic acids for applications in biosensing and bioimaging. Her spouse, John Heemstra Jr., will also join the faculty as a senior lecturer in chemistry.

Jennifer Heemstra (Photo: Emory University / Jessica Lily Photography)

In addition to her faculty role in Arts & Sciences, Heemstra will serve as chair of the Department of Chemistry, a position currently held by William Buhro, George E. Pake Professor in Arts & Sciences. Buhro plans to return to the faculty after serving as chair for 12 years.

"I could not be more thrilled to have recruited an exceptional scientist and inspiring leader for this critical role," said Feng Sheng Hu, dean of Arts & Sciences. "Jen is a dedicated mentor who leads a superb research program, and her many talents will help strengthen the department as well as the research and educational mission of Arts & Sciences."

"I am also grateful to Bill Buhro for his leadership and service to the department," added Hu. "Jen will build on Bill's efforts, placing the chemistry department on a very exciting trajectory through the coming years."

Heemstra studied chemistry at the University of California, Irvine, where her undergraduate research inspired her ongoing interest in supramolecular chemistry. After completing her bachelor’s degree in 2000, Heemstra joined the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign as a doctoral student. There, Heemstra studied phenylene ethynylene cavitands, molecules that can provide insight into specific folding or reaction patterns of proteins. After earning her doctorate in 2005, Heemstra spent two years in industry, working on medicinal chemistry, before accepting a postdoctoral position at Harvard University.

In 2010, Heemstra began her faculty career in the Department of Chemistry at the University of Utah. In 2017, Heemstra and her research group moved to Emory University, where she was promoted to full professor. Heemstra has received numerous awards and honors, including the American Chemical Society's Women Chemists Committee Rising Star Award in 2021, a National Science Foundation CAREER award in 2016, and a Cottrell Scholar Award in 2015.

Jennifer Heemstra in her lab (Photo: Emory University / Kay Hinton)

Research in the Heemstra lab leverages two key properties of nucleic acids – molecular recognition and self-assembly – and harnesses them for biosensing and bioimaging applications. In Heemstra’s recent work on RNA, for example, she and her team are developing new chemical and biological tools to track the location and modification of RNA in living cells. Understanding RNA editing and its pivotal role in cellular function promises applications in clinical diagnostics and drug discovery, particularly in infectious diseases, neurological disorders, and certain types of cancer linked to dysfunctional RNA editing.

John Heemstra Jr. (Photo: Emory University / Robin Henson Photography)

Heemstra is also involved in science education research. As co-founder of a nationwide collaborative network, she investigates how academic interventions in undergraduate classrooms and laboratories can help students overcome fear of failure and productively respond when failure inevitably occurs. Heemstra is also a science communicator who previously was a regular contributor to Chemical & Engineering News.

John Heemstra Jr. is currently a senior lecturer at Emory University, where he has taught numerous chemistry courses since 2017. He played a leading role in developing foundational coursework for Emory's undergraduate chemistry curriculum. Heemstra has earned a reputation as an exceptional, innovative, and dedicated educator who creates enriching classroom experiences. Before his current position, he was a postdoctoral scholar at Harvard Medical School, an award-winning instructor at the University of Utah, and a research scientist in the chemical and pharmaceutical industries.

"John and I are thrilled to join the faculty at WashU and contribute to the outstanding tradition of excellence in and beyond the classroom!" said Jen Heemstra. "We are especially excited to partner with stakeholders at all levels in chemistry, in Arts & Sciences, and across the WashU campus to continue innovating in research and equipping the next generation of science leaders."