Sarah Kirk

Professor of Chemistry; Director of the First Year Experience
Specialty: Organic and Medicinal Chemistry

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Contact Information

Smullin 108 / Olin Science Center 313
900 State Street
Salem  Oregon  97301


  • PhD, University of California, San Diego
  • BA, Whitman College


I am an Organic Chemist with a focus on the design, synthesis, and characterization of new therapeutics. My professional development is currently divided into four areas: (1) the design and synthesis of tetracaine derivatives; (2) the study of metal-based drugs binding to nucleic acids; (3) pedagogical research; and (4) STEM diversity initiatives. The first two areas focus on my interest in how the structure of a molecule affects its biological activity. My most recent area of study has stemmed from my experience on an NSF ADVANCE grant; recent work includes designing structures to support women and other underrepresented groups in and out of STEM fields. I have mentored over 50 undergraduate research students in structure-activity relationship studies over the last 16 years. Students have made significant contributions to the work and served as co-authors on both posters and manuscripts. I engage students in all aspects of my research and help them to become self-directed, regardless of whether they go on to become doctors, teachers, or scientists.

In addition to teaching and research, I serve as the Director of the First-Year Experience where I have the opportunity to develop programs and work with students to equip them for success in academic life at Willamette. Most recently, I completed a five-year rotating term as the Associate Dean for Faculty Development. In this role, I worked with both new and more seasoned faculty helping to promote their development and success as teacher-scholars. I initiated a peer-mentoring project for faculty of color at five regional institutions; one cohort focused on junior faculty in STEM fields. In addition to mentoring students and faculty at my own institution, I am the PI on an NSF ADVANCE project, “ASCEND: Advancing STEM Careers by Empowering Network Development”. 

Professional Interests

Design and synthesis of novel tetracaine derivatives as potential ion channel blockers; Defining essential elements within novel molecules that dictate binding affinity and specificity; Binding and cleavage studies of ruthenium anti-cancer drugs with tRNA


Chem 110 Chemical Concepts and Applications

Chem 115 Introductory Chemistry I

Chem 116 Introductory Chemistry II

Chem 225 Organic Chemistry I

Chem 226 Organic Chemistry II

Chem 347 Experimental Biochemistry II

Chem 430 Advanced Topics: Bioorganic Chemistry

Chem 431 Advanced Topics in Biochemistry

Chem 495 Senior Research Projects I


  • B. G. Dwyer, E. Johnson, E. Cazares, K. L. McFarlane Holman, S. R. Kirk. "Ruthenium anticancer agent KP1019 binds more tightly than NAMI-A to tRNAPhe", J. Inorg. Biochem. 182177-183 (2018). 
  • T.P. Silverstein, S. R. Kirk, S. Meyer, K. L. McFarlane Holman. “Myoglobin structure and function: A multi-week biochemistry laboratory project”, Biochem. Mol. Biol. Educ. 43, 181-188 (2015); also published online at “Educational Portal of the Protein Data Bank (PDB)”:
  • Kirk S.R., Andrade, A.L, Melich K, Jackson E, Cuellar E, Karpen J. "Halogen substitutions on the aromatic moiety of the tetracaine scaffold improve potency of cyclic nucleotide-gated channel block" Bioorg. Med. Chem. Lett. (2011), 21, 6417-6419
  • Andrade A.L, Melich K, Whatley G.G, Kirk S.R., Karpen J.W. "Cyclic Nucleotide-Gated Channel Block by Hydrolysis-Resistant Tetracaine Derivatives." J. Med. Chem. (2011), 54, 4904-4912
  • T. Strassmaier, S.R. Kirk, T. Banerji, and J.W. Karpen, “Block of cyclic nucleotide-gated channels by tetracaine derivatives: role of apolar interactions at two distinct locations” Bioorg. Med. Chem. Lett. 18, 645-649 (2008).
  • Kirk, S.R.; Silverstein, T.P.; Holman, K. L. M, “Metal Catalyzed Cleavage of tRNAPhe J. Chem. Educ., 85, 676-677. (2008).
  • Kirk, S.R.; Silverstein, T.P.; Holman, K. L. M, “UV Thermal Melting Curves of tRNAPhe in the Presence of Ligands” J. Chem. Educ., 85, 674-675 (2008).
  • Kirk, S.R.; Silverstein, T.P.; Holman, K. L. M., “Fluorescence Spectroscopy of tRNAPhe Y Base in the Presence of Mg2+ and Small Molecule Ligands” J. Chem. Educ. 85, 678-679. (2008).
  • Kirk, S.R.; Silverstein, T.P.; McFarlane Holman, K.L.; Taylor, B.H., “Probing Changes in the Conformation of tRNAPhe: An Integrated Biochemistry Laboratory Course” J. Chem. Ed., 85, 666-673 (2008).
  • S.R. Kirk, T.P. Silverstein, and J.J. Willemsen, "Teaching Biologically Relevant Chemistry Throughout the Four-Year Chemistry Curriculum" J. Chem. Ed. 83, 1171-1175 (2006).
  • S.R. Kirk, N.W. Luedtke, and Y. Tor, "2-Aminopurine as a Real-Time Probe of Enzymatic Cleavage and Inhibition of Hammerhead Ribozymes" Bioorg. Med. Chem. 9, 2295-2301 (2001).
  • S.R. Kirk, N.W. Luedtke, and Y. Tor, "Neomycin? Acridine Conjugate: A Potent Inhibitor of Rev-RRE Binding" J.Am. Chem. Soc. 122, 980-981, (2000).
  • S.R. Kirk and Y. Tor, "tRNAPhe Binds Aminoglycoside Antibiotics" Bioorg. Med. Chem. 7, 1979-1991, (1999).
  • S.R. Kirk and Y. Tor, "Hydrolysis of an RNA Dinucleoside Monophosphate by Neomycin B" Chem Commun. 147-149, (1998).

Grants and Awards

National Institutes of Health (AREA) Research Grant: "The design and synthesis of tetracaine derivatives as enhanced ion channel blockers" (Principal Investigator), 2020-2023 ($340,999).

National Science Foundation (ADVANCE PARTNERSHIP) Grant: "ASCEND: Advancing STEM Careers by Empowering Network Development" (Principal Investigator), 2019-2024 ($999,899). 

National Science Foundation (S-STEM) Grant: “Fostering equity, support, and community for underrepresented STEM students”  (STEM Administrator and Co-PI), 2018-2022 ($646,986).

Murdock College Research Program for Natural Sciences – Physical Sciences Grant “The design and synthesis of tetracaine derivatives with enhanced acidity as potent cyclic nucleotide-gated ion channel blockers” (Principal Investigator), 2015-2018 ($48,000)

Professor of the Year Award, Order of Omega, Willamette University, 2015

United Methodist Award for Exemplary Teaching and Service, 2014

Willamette University

Department of Chemistry

900 State Street
Salem Oregon 97301 U.S.A.
503-370-6013 voice
503-375-5425 fax

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