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Sarah Kirk

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

Headshot of Sarah Kirk


  • 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


  • 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).
Willamette University

Department of Chemistry

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