MI Women’s Hall Of Fame Class Includes MSU Chemist

Oct 15, 2018

This week, the Michigan Women’s Hall of Fame will induct a new class of honorees. One of them is Dr. Angela Wilson, the John A. Hannah Distinguished Professor of Chemistry at MSU.

Born in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, Wilson was recruited to Michigan State University as part of the Global Impact Initiative in 2016, and she has served as director for the National Science Foundation’s Division of Chemistry. There, she oversaw a $250-million dollar budget.

WKAR science reporter Scott Pohl talks with Dr. Wilson about her career and her Michigan roots.

DR. ANGELA WILSON: My area of specialty is quantum mechanics, which is kind of a combination between chemistry, physics, math and computer science. We do a lot of work trying to predict energetic states of reactions and molecules. With this, we really are able to look at many different types of chemistry, from catalytic chemistry to storage of energy for new types of batteries.

SCOTT POHL: What drew you back to the state of Michigan?

AW: A couple of things. A couple of years ago, I had visited MSU for a conference, and I very much enjoyed the atmosphere here. I went to a Big Ten university (Minnesota) myself, and most of my family is in Minnesota and Wisconsin. Also, they (MSU) have one of the top theoretical chemistry programs in the U.S. They also have the number one program in nuclear physics. I do a lot of work with heavy elements, so this was a really big draw for me.

SP: The National Science Foundation is something that people have heard of but maybe don’t know that much about. What is the primary function of the NSF?

AW: The primary function of the National Science Foundation is to fund basic scientific and engineering research across the U.S. It’s a primary funder of most universities across the U.S. on topics ranging from engineering sciences and also education in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) areas. Also, social sciences, some support of economics as well.

SP: You are the director of the National Science Foundation’s Division of Chemistry, and the budget for that division is a quarter of a billion dollars. Is that an annual budget?

AW: That is the annual budget. Actually, one-third of the workforce at the National Science Foundation is rotated, generally from universities. I completed my rotation. I’m no longer the head of the Chemistry Division.

SP: What kind of return does America get on an investment like that?

AW: America gets a huge return on investment. A lot of our major technological developments have been based upon research funded by the National Science Foundation. They have a wonderful website that points to many of these discoveries, everything from recycling and new polymers to new medicines.

SP: How does MSU benefit from having this connection, through you, to the National Science Foundation?

AW: I come back with a lot more insight in terms of opportunities that MSU should be taking advantage of, a lot of connections I’ve made through my short time at the National Science Foundation. I can connect people with other people at other places. I think these opportunities are really terrific because you can have a better feel for what’s going on in terms of funding not only at the National Science Foundation, but at the other federal agencies as well.

SP: A $250-million budget at the Division of Chemistry: did some of that money finds its way to East Lansing?

AW: Probably, yes, but when we’re at the National Science Foundation on rotation, we are not involved with anything at our home institutions.