Faculty in the News – Craig Merlic

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Prof. Craig Merlic

Professor Craig Merlic is profiled in an in-depth article in the Hertz Foundation News.

Merlic was a Hertz Fellow during his organic chemistry graduate studies at the University of Wisconsin. The Hertz Fellowship is awarded annually to the nation’s most promising graduate students in science and technology.

From Hertz Foundation News (by Colleen Newquist):

A Kaleidoscopic Approach to Life

Hertz Fellow Craig Merlic characterizes his kaleidoscopic approach to life in six words: “Curiosity, problem solving, leadership, adventure, storytelling.”

Merlic’s many pursuits and passions over the decades reflect these facets, from making fireworks as a 14-year-old to building a first-generation compact disc system; from pioneering virtual office hours to earning an international reputation in laboratory safety; from energizing the Hertz community through engaging events to embracing the challenges of rock climbing.   

“My whole life I’ve had this incredible curiosity,” Merlic said. As a boy he badgered his father, a Lockheed engineer, with questions about everything from geology and woodworking to missiles and astronomy, and he was just a young teen when he started doing chemistry. “As a parent myself, I’ve wondered what my mom was thinking, because not only did I make fireworks, I also made bombs and explosives, and she let me do it,” he said, laughing. 

Surviving these early experiments, his curiosity led him to earn a BS in chemistry from the University of California, Davis, pursue his PhD in organic chemistry from the University of Wisconsin as a Hertz Fellow, and conduct postdoctoral work in organic chemistry at Princeton University with an NIH fellowship. 

Early in his college career, his path took him to Silicon Valley, where he spent the summer after his freshman year with a small electronics firm that was working to create the first compact disc (CD) digital optical data storage. “This company had a plan to coat 20-by-20-centimeter glass plates with metal, and then use a laser to burn holes, and then use another laser to read the holes. That’s essentially what a CD system is.” 

While the company eventually folded after another firm successfully introduced the circular CD, the initial plan was to place 200 or so of these plates in a box to create a memory unit. Merlic’s job was to build circuit boards for the prototype device, hand-wiring and testing the integrated circuits before handing them off to the engineers. “I’ve always enjoyed problem-solving, figuring things out and making them work. I do that for everything.”

Another college summer he spent long days in the lab of a Santa Barbara professor making molecules. “The ability to make molecules, creating the correct sequence of atomic scale connectivity between atoms to make functional molecules is what organic chemistry is all about,” Merlic said. 

The “sexiest” application of organic chemistry is making medicines, the focus of his own career research, Merlic said. “I’m constantly talking about how we design and make drugs, how drugs work in the body. In fact, I taught a course on developing drugs—medicinal—not recreational drugs. I don’t do ‘Breaking Bad’ chemistry.” 

Although he has been in the classroom for 35 years, teaching wasn’t initially part of his plan. During his first few years of graduate school, Merlic fully expected to launch a career working for a company like Dow or DuPont—until he realized that academia would support his desire to do research exploring his own ideas. In 1989, he joined the faculty of the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry at UCLA, where he has spent his entire career. Over the decades, he has received several teaching awards alongside a National Science Foundation Young Investigator Award, Camille Dreyfus Teacher-Scholar Award, and Alfred P. Sloan Research Fellowship. 

In the early 1990s, Merlic was recognized for improving the student experience through educational technology projects, including a better way to view magnified graphical information online, such as nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopy. “It turns out that the system is still the best for displaying this type of information,” he said. 

“I have benefited from other people’s generosity, both in time and money, and I decided years ago that I needed to give back.”

Craig Merlic
1972 Hertz Fellow

Among the projects was one he called “virtual office hours,” which allowed students to post questions on a class website instead of emailing him directly, thereby sharing the query and answer with the entire class—a revolutionary concept at the time. He developed other features as well, such as posting documents and videos, and freely shared the technology. He was aware of the commercial potential, but since he enjoyed academic research chose to not pursue it, and indeed there are products now that mimic many of the features he created thirty years ago. 

“I have benefited from other people’s generosity, both in time and money, and I decided years ago that I needed to give back,” Merlic said. Sharing technology and teaching are both ways of doing so.  

Another is ensuring students are safe. 

“In chemistry, we work with high energy things, and sometimes things go south. As a grad student, I realized the importance of laboratory safety. So when I started at UCLA, I created a course on chemical safety,” he said. 

Then in 2009, a tragic lab accident resulted in the death of a UCLA staff researcher. The University of California’s response included creating the University of California Center for Laboratory Safety and launching programs to dramatically improve research safety. 

“In the university we work with huge amounts of hazardous materials—highly toxic things that burst into flames, radioactive things, Ebola, HIV, plasma, and 3000-volt systems. There are ways of handling these things safely, but the university needed to promote more of this. After the death of the researcher, I became much more engaged in research safety,” he said. 

Merlic was named executive director of the UC Center for Laboratory Safety in 2014, a position he still holds, although he formally retired from UCLA in July 2023. He also just finished a stint as a federal commissioner appointed to advise the National Institute of Standards and Technology on research safety. He is working on a project for the National Institutes of Health, training environmental health and safety staff on chemical safety, and he has been invited by a university research park in Hong Kong to host a biosafety training. In addition, he publishes articles on “lessons learned,” acknowledging that while accidents will occur, it’s important to investigate the cause and determine how to mitigate future occurrences. 

Now that he’s retired, he has more time to give back, including to the Hertz Foundation. In addition to being a regular donor, Merlic has volunteered to be a community representative for the foundation, organizing events for the Hertz community in the Los Angeles area, such as a dinner he hosted at his home last fall. 

“Being a professor, I’m not going to be able to give millions of dollars to the Hertz Foundation, but I can give bits of money here and there, and I can also give my time and expertise,” he said.

Retirement also includes travel with his wife, Jenny, a retired chemistry professor and college vice president, and staying active through snow and water skiing, mountain and rock climbing, scuba diving, and home construction. 

“I really enjoy adventure in life,” Merlic said, “and I’ve done many, many adventurous things.”