Dr. Melanie Loots retires after 35 years at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign

Melanie Loots at her retirement reception in May.

Melanie Loots at her retirement reception in May.

Before Mosaic fundamentally changed the way we access information on the Internet. Before the genomic revolution ushered in access to remarkable new fields of study, and the technicolor statues at IGB. Before we flipped the switches on, and then off, at Blue Waters. Before email was ubiquitous—and gathering for a conference call involved patiently tapping in individual phone numbers. And well before a pandemic that ultimately showcased the strength and the versatility of the Illinois research enterprise. In her long tenure at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, Dr. Melanie Loots has been a witness to—and a leader of—incredible change in the university’s research environment. Now, after 35 years of service, the Senior Executive Associate Vice Chancellor for Research & Innovation is preparing for her next assignment: retirement.

“Melanie has had a front row seat during one of the most exciting times in our nation’s research history—and she understands the complexity of research like no one else,” said Susan Martinis, Vice Chancellor for Research and Innovation at Illinois. “She’s got the big picture, but nothing is too mundane for her, either. She dives in, sorts through, unites the threads and simply figures things out.”

That can-do spirit is best showcased in the campus’s research infrastructure. As a chemist, Loots understands the importance of research instrumentation and access to the tools the investigators need to conduct experiments. She has been tireless in advocating for access to helium during a global shortage. She has navigated complex regulations to help researchers purchase specialized equipment, and negotiated agreements to fund large-scale shared resources, like the CryoEM. More recently, she helped secure a state-of-the-art greenhouse for the massive CABBI project, supporting plant genomics research and bioproducts discovery.

“She is a fixer of sorts,” said Gene Robinson, Director of the Carl R. Woese Institute of Genomic Biology. “The person you first think to call on when faced with uncertainty and the individual you rely on to have your best interests at heart, but a fixer of the most unique type – one that is kind, fair, and decent.”

"You can achieve so much when you bring different people together. You can potentially solve bigger problems that have multiple components.” — Dr. Melanie Loots

Loots started at the National Center for Supercomputing Applications (NCSA) before joining the then Office of the Vice Chancellor for Research (now OVCRI) in 2000. During her decades with OVCRI, research at Illinois has experienced significant growth. Illinois has more than doubled its total research expenditures in that same time, from $373 million in 2000 to $765 million in 2022. When she started, there were only two large-scale, campuswide research institutes that reported centrally. Now there are ten.

“What has been an evolution is that there are more opportunities to do really large projects now,” said Loots. “Basic research continues on many fronts, but then the opportunities have really evolved.

In her role, Loots has made significant contributions to developing the uniquely interdisciplinary Illinois research ecosystem that exists today. She has also been at the table as the university has established national leadership in key areas like supercomputing and research that addresses the climate crisis.

“I’ve worked alongside so many talented leaders, researchers, and staff members during my career,” said Loots. “It’s a very rich research environment here, and people are at the heart of it. You can achieve so much when you bring different people together. You can potentially solve bigger problems that have multiple components.”

Dr. Melanie Loots
Dr. Melanie Loots

Patty Jones, the Assistant Vice Chancellor for Research and Innovation for Compliance, worked with Loots in the 90s when the two were both co-located at the Beckman Institute.

“Beckman and NCSA were both these wonderful contexts of interdisciplinary, collaborative work, with all kinds of great synergies, and Melanie was a go-to person for brainstorming,” said Jones, who joined the OVCRI in 2023. “Today, it’s even more clear to me that she is the epitome of research administration done right—knowledgeable, helpful, collaborative, solving problems and making the world a better place one day at a time.”

Loots credits Dan Alpert, the former Director of the Center for Advanced Study (CAS) and strong proponent of work that crosses disciplinary boundaries, as well as the working colloquium on Women, Information Technology and Society (WITS), led by Cheris Kramarae and H. Jeanie Taylor, at CAS in the 90s, for her appreciation of interdisciplinary research. While at NCSA, she worked closely with pioneers like Donna Cox, helping to establish many long-term collaborations between computer scientists and researchers in other disciplines.

“Melanie was always in the room, she's always part of the discussion,” said Linda Lee Drozt, Director of Strategic Regulatory Programs and Conflict of Interest Officer. “Her influence has allowed the university to make thoughtful, logical steps forward. She just sees the whole picture, and that allows the university to make good decisions.”

“Especially in interdisciplinary research, I'm excited about finding ways that people can work together to achieve their goals,” said Loots.

In addition to helping lead the OVCRI through significant growth, Loots has been pivotal in understanding and translating increasingly complex regulations that govern research across campus. She has long had oversight for campus conflicts of interest and research integrity, and she was instrumental in helping to launch the NAGPRA office that became part of the OVCRI portfolio in 2020.

“Given the expansive nature of our research enterprise, really complex issues can come up, sometimes involving ethical concerns,” said Chris Lehmann, the university’s Research Integrity Officer. “Melanie is always keen to find the right balance, supporting our investigators in doing the right thing and promptly addressing issues, all with the goal of ensuring that we maintain the highest ethical standards.”

Dr. Melanie Loots in graduate school
Melanie Loots while completing her
Ph.D. in Chemistry at Princeton

“She's just delighted by a problem or a challenge,” said Lee Drozt. “She just gets excited; it just tickles her to see an issue pop up. I don’t think a lot of people would say, ‘Oh boy!’ when they're faced with a problem.”

Loots earned her Ph.D. in organometallic chemistry from Princeton University in 1979. She was inspired to become a scientist by high school teachers in her hometown of Marshalltown, Iowa who also encouraged her to participate in an NSF summer program at the University of Georgia.

Influenced by those mentors, Loots returned the favor by becoming a mentor herself to many in the research community at Illinois.

Mike Brosco, the Director of Research Application Development, joined the OVCRI in 2005. He recalls meeting Loots during the interview process and being impressed by both the depth of her knowledge and her enthusiasm for research.

“She has always been a pillar of support and inspiration over the years,” said Brosco. “But what is amazing is that I’ve come to realize she has been that same pillar for so many different people across campus.”

Now, as she organizes her files, sorts through correspondence and makes final preparations for her next chapter, she can take pride in the role she played in research projects that revolutionized modern life—and in the impact she had on people she met along the way.


Melanie’s last day is June 30. If you would like to honor her legacy and commitment to the University, please consider making a gift to the University Library: https://www.library.illinois.edu/friends/make-a-gift/.

Jun 28, 2024