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Organically Armitage

Teaching organic chemistry has been a constant in Bruce Armitage’s life. Every spring semester, he inspires — and is inspired by — classes full of students on the topic.

“It’s really easy to get up each day and go in and teach,” he said. But after 22 years of such springs, next semester will be different. “I’m reluctantly letting that go. It’s weird to not have that on the horizon.”

There’s plenty on the horizon to keep Armitage busy. Recently named head of the Department of Chemistry, Armitage will lead the department’s faculty, staff and students during a pivotal time for science at Carnegie Mellon.

“With the future of science initiative, which includes a new building for science, the Carnegie Mellon University Cloud Lab — the first of its kind at a university — and support for the research of the future, there are many opportunities for the Department of Chemistry to do things that aren’t being done anywhere else,” he said.

These days, Armitage is working with colleagues to design lab spaces in the new Richard King Mellon Hall of Sciences. The whole department is contemplating structure, from what labs to put in proximity of each other and the potential for chemistry and biology labs to share space to promote collaboration between researchers. This unique opportunity is right in Armitage’s wheelhouse.

From his first research project as an undergraduate to his research at Carnegie Mellon, Armitage has explored the chemistry of nucleic acids, a topic that requires the convergence of disciplines, including organic chemistry, biology and materials science.

“It’s still that interface of chemistry with biology that attracts me,” he said.

Armitage’s lab develops synthetic nucleic acid molecules called peptide nucleic acids to recognize and interact with DNA and RNA. This research has important implications for understanding and manipulating biological processes and could lead to improved diagnosis and treatment of genetic and infectious diseases.

Always an interdisciplinary collaborator, Armitage and Biological Sciences Professor John Woolford co-founded the Center for Nucleic Acids Science and Technology, one of the world’s largest nucleic acids research centers with more than 100 members spanning disciplines including biology, chemistry, physics and chemical engineering.

More recently, Armitage played a significant role in bringing the first academic cloud lab to Carnegie Mellon. He contributed to the early proof-of-concept research conducted with Emerald Cloud Lab, co-founded by alumni Brian Frezza and DJ Kleinbaum. They both took courses with Armitage as undergraduates and stayed in touch.

“It’s really an innovative partnership, an innovative facility that’s being built. And all from this great relationship that we’ve maintained with these two alumni,” Armitage said.

Along with Frezza and Kleinbaum, many alumni have had the pleasure of learning from Armitage. Outside of classes he has supervised 31 graduate students, seven postdoctoral associates and more than 60 undergraduate researchers.

“I continue to be inspired by the students that I teach and mentor. I continue to get excited about the colleagues that I collaborate with in the classroom, in the laboratory, on administrative tasks. And I think that the process of creating this new building is only going to bring chemistry and biology closer together than we’ve ever been in the past,” he said. “It’s a really exciting time.”

■ Amy Laird