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Science Journey - Building New Molecules: Chemistry in the Lab and at the Computer

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Melissa Ramirez
Postdoctoral Scholar Research Associate in Chemistry

About the Presentation

Computation • Organic chemistry • Medicine

Organic chemistry affects our lives every day, from the food we eat to the shampoo we use. Organic molecules are all around us; they can be found in plants, drinks, and the clothing that we own. In fact, many of the medicines you see in the drug store are developed through organic synthesis. Finding new ways to synthesize, or make, new organic molecules in the laboratory is an important area of research that can provide new medicines and other desirable compounds.

As computers have advanced over the years, they have become a powerful tool for inventing new chemical reactions that generate valuable organic molecules. Computational models—computer representations of something that exists in the real world—make it possible for chemists to predict the outcome of a reaction before performing an experiment in the laboratory. Computations can also allow chemists to study what we call "highly reactive molecules," or molecules that oftentimes cannot be observed in the lab.

As an organic chemist, Melissa Ramirez uses computations and experiments to construct and explore new organic molecules and to find better ways of synthesizing existing ones. Her research at Caltech focuses on developing new chemical reactions that generate spirocycles, which are important building blocks for new medicinal molecules.

Join Melissa on this journey to explore how organic chemistry affects our world and to learn how experiments and computations brought her back home to Pasadena to develop new chemistry.

About the Speaker

Two young girls standing in front of a Christmas tree and presents

Melissa Ramirez was born in Los Angeles, and she is a first-generation Mexican American. She grew up in Pasadena and attended Marshall Fundamental School, which is only 2 miles away from Caltech, from sixth to 12th grade. She became interested in chemistry through her participation in summer high school programs, which included the California State Summer School for Mathematics and Science at UC Santa Cruz, and Caltech's Summer Research Connection. The ability to use chemistry to explain why certain fish light up—a natural phenomenon known as bioluminescence—first sparked Melissa's interest in this area.

Currently, Melissa is a Caltech Presidential Postdoctoral Scholar in the laboratory of Brian Stoltz, the Victor and Elizabeth Atkins Professor of Chemistry and a Heritage Medical Research Institute Investigator. Her research centers on combining computations and synthetic chemistry to construct new organic molecules with the potential to improve human health. Melissa is excited to train the next generation of chemists and will become a faculty member at the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities in January 2025.

When she is not setting up a reaction or working at the computer, Melissa enjoys running and loves exercising with her Peloton bike and rower. She also enjoys taking high-intensity interval training classes at a local studio and trying new restaurants in the Pasadena and LA areas.

About the Series

In Science Journeys, Caltech graduate students and postdoctoral scholars share their research to inspire scientific curiosity. Programs are designed for middle and high schoolers.

These programs are made possible through the generosity of the Friends of Beckman Auditorium.

If you have questions, please email Mary Herrera at

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