Olmstead earns Meyer award

UC Davis crystal specialist Marilyn Olmstead has been on campus since 1969, arriving just after the time James Meyer began his 18-year stint as chancellor.

That's one of the reasons that Olmstead is so pleased to be named the winner of this year's James H. Meyer Distinguished Achievement Award.

"I admired James Meyer," she said. "I thought he was warm and gracious."

Olmstead has worked at UC Davis for more than 30 years, but that's not the only reason she received the award honoring career achievement by a member of the UC Davis Academic Federation, a group of lecturers, specialists and librarians on campus. The quality of her work in the chemistry department has simply been outstanding, said the professors who nominated Olmstead: Alan Balch, Susan Kauzlarich and Philip Power.

"She has very high standards of what is acceptable and what is not," Kauzlarich said. "That's reflected in her work."

Olmstead is a world-renowned crystallographer, a scientist who determines - via a picture created through x-ray diffraction - the geometric structure of new molecules chemists have formed.

"For an inorganic chemist the structure is interesting itself," she said of her specialty. "New chemical bonds are discovered. It adds to our understanding of basic chemistry."

Olmstead has done much herself to add to chemists' understanding of molecular structures. On a popular Web site "The Institute for Scientific Information's 1,000 Most Cited Chemists," (http://pcb4122.univ-lemans.fr/1000chimistes.html), she is listed as the 175th most cited chemist in recent scientific literature. Kauzlarich says Olmstead is the top woman chemist on the list, which was compiled from a set of more than 600,000 authors writing between 1981 to 1997. Olmstead's crystal structure research was mentioned 4,889 times in articles during that time.

"Marilyn has clearly made a major impact on the field of chemistry, and her accomplishments certainly deserve recognition," Kauzlarich said.

Olmstead developed her expertise in crystallography early in her career with the support of another faculty member, emeritus professor HÃ¥kon Hope. She'd always been interested in the specialty, but her graduate program at the University of Wisconsin lacked a crystallography emphasis. She had come to UC Davis as a lecturer to teach general chemistry.

Working under Hope sharpened Olmstead's interest in crystal structure.

"There's a lot of math. I love math," she said. "There's a lot of computing and graphics. It's a very artistic field to be involved in."

Illustrations of crystal structures determined by Olmstead have been pictured on the covers of Chemical and Engineering News and Chemistry: A European Journal.

Despite her prolific research career, she still finds time to work with graduate students, though her research-oriented specialist position doesn't require her to mentor them. Often, however, the students in Kauzlarich's graduate group turn to Olmstead to solve tough structural problems. Kauzlarich describes her colleague as patient and encouraging.

"Marilyn doesn't teach in the formalized sense, but she works with students one-on-one," she said. "She's almost like a secondary adviser to students. A lot of them think she's their primary adviser."

That advising work is the most important and enjoyable part of her job, Olmstead said. "It's what makes it all worthwhile. I think work would be lonely and boring without it."

Olmstead also helps out fellow faculty members at universities from CSU Sacramento to Penn State who do not have adequate X-ray facilities to determine crystal structures. And many of her former student are running their own crystallography labs at universities across the country.

Olmstead, however, has never had a desire to leave UC Davis, except for short research stints at the National Science Foundation and at the Institute of Crystallography in Bern, Switzerland.

"We raised our children here, and I think Davis is a wonderful place to live," she said.

Her husband, Alan Olmstead, is the director of the Institute for Governmental Affairs at UC Davis.

The couple have two children: Nate, who recently graduated from Harvard Business School; and Janis, an assistant professor of economics at the Colorado School of Mines.

Olmstead will be presented with her award at a 5:30 p.m. reception Jan. 14 in Alpha Gamma Rho hall of the Buehler Alumni and Visitors Center.

Media Resources

Amy Agronis, Dateline, (530) 752-1932, abagronis@ucdavis.edu

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