A Chemist's Journey-Mellon College of Science - Carnegie Mellon University

A Chemist's Journey

Catalina Achim makes her way from Communist Romania to Carnegie Mellon

photo of Catalina Achim in her lab

What kept Catalina Achim (S’98) on the path to becoming a synthetic inorganic chemist at Carnegie Mellon was a mix of determination, hard work, focus and a positive, can-do attitude.

“Every big task or accomplishment is made up of a sequence of little tasks or accomplishments. We should dream big but shouldn’t judge ourselves only by the big accomplishments, but also by the succession of small ones,” said Achim. “This is how I proceed about my science and life in general.”

Achim was born in Macin, Romania, a very small town on the Danube River. She knew from an early age that she wanted to be a teacher like both of her parents. In high school, she fell in love with chemistry, and she set her sights on becoming a chemistry teacher. Achim had the good fortune to be exposed to research and realized that she loved doing it. Given the circumstances in Romania at that time, students could build a strong background in science, particularly in theory, but research opportunities were limited. Her friends discouraged her from pursuing research because, at the time, no one could get a Ph.D. in Romania. But she followed her heart and stuck with it.

When she graduated from the University of Bucharest in 1989, Romania was still under communist rule. Achim and her classmates were assigned jobs according to their GPA. Achim got a position at the Meteorological and Hydrological Institute, stationed at a post in the Carpathian Mountains, 200 miles outside of Bucharest.

“I went there and they said that they had nothing for chemists to work with. The only place they had sodium chloride was in the kitchen,” said Achim.

It turns out that the position was a ruse, and her job was actually at one of the Institute’s air pollution labs in Bucharest. Since the city was considered “closed,” no one could officially be hired there. “Despite the fact that I was working in Bucharest, on the books I was not existing in Bucharest. I could not get a house or food rations there.”

Achim made the best of the situation, and for six months worked in Bucharest, getting food from her parents. Then communism fell. Bucharest opened and the university started accepting doctoral students. In 1991, Achim accepted a position as a teaching assistant and began doing research again. Her son, Tudor, was born that same year.

“I started doing research at the university, but the infrastructure was very poor. That year, our budget for chemicals for the entire department was a few hundred dollars,” said Achim.

Her sister came to the United States to get her Ph.D. in 1992. At first Achim didn’t consider following her sister’s path because it would mean being separated from her son. However, insurmountable housing challenges already kept her from her son, and with research opportunities severely limited, Achim started considering what would be best in the long run for her family.

Her sister helped to convince her to apply to doctoral programs in the United States, because she knew Achim would thrive in the environment. Achim made the difficult decision to apply and was accepted to Carnegie Mellon in 1993. Her support network was critical to her decision. Her son Tudor remained in Romania, first with her husband and her parents and, a year later, with her parents when Achim’s husband joined her in the United States. Tudor followed two years later.

“Having a child increased tremendously my sense of responsibility. You can’t say something is too hard or not important. You have to make the best decision with the child in mind. I think that learning to make those tough decisions and having an increased sense of responsibility made me a better parent and a better teacher,” said Achim.

She arrived at Carnegie Mellon with the intention to study inorganic chemistry. She chose to focus on physical inorganic chemistry, the area she felt was the most challenging to her, enabling her to build a strong foundation. First, she worked with Eckard Münck, learning how to use spectroscopy to determine the properties of proteins that mediate charge transfer in biological systems. Then, building on what she studied at Carnegie Mellon, she went to Harvard for a postdoctoral position with Richard H. Holm, where she began synthesizing molecules for the study of charge transfer.

At Harvard, she learned how to synthesize peptides. It was a hard project that didn’t lead to any publications, but the skill of synthesizing peptides transferred to making peptide nucleic acids (PNAs), the molecules that form a pillar of Achim’s current academic life.

“In the beginning of your career it’s hard to tell where your path will take you but it’s not hard to see the direction of the path. I took what I learned about electronic and magnetic properties of metal complexes from Eckard Münck and what I learned about making these complexes from Dick Holm and applied them in the context of nucleic acids to create my own new space in science.”

“Catalina Achim is a remarkable scientist, capable of generating many new ideas, technically proficient in executing experiments, and intellectually capable of taking on many different challenges in her area of chemistry. She ranks in the very top echelon of postdoctoral associates who have been in my laboratory in the last twenty years,” said Holm.

Achim returned to Carnegie Mellon as an assistant professor in 2001, where she could build on her expertise in inorganic chemistry and peptides. She joined Bruce Armitage and Danith Ly, who develop artificially synthesized PNAs, molecules that possess both DNA and protein-like properties. The group of scientists, who are at the forefront of PNA research, design PNAs with specific properties to serve a variety of needs. For example, Achim is using PNA to work toward the synthesis of small molecular-scale electronic devices.

So while Achim never could have predicted the places her career path would take her, she is happy as a mother, teacher and scientist.

“Until 1989, almost no Romanian had a passport. So by the time I finished college, I couldn’t have imagined that my career would take me to the United States. But I chose to do what I felt passionate about: chemistry, raising a child. I think that the feelings I had for what I was doing allowed me to achieve my goals easier and better.”