Chemistry at Illinois University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

Steven C. Zimmerman

Roger Adams Professor of Chemistry
Professor, Materials Research Lab

Professor Steven C. Zimmerman attended the University of Wisconsin as an undergraduate. After obtaining his B.S. in 1979, he moved to New York City where in 1983 he obtained his Ph.D. from Columbia University. He held an NSF-NATO Postdoctoral Fellowship at the University of Cambridge in England and joined the Illinois faculty in 1985. Professor Zimmerman's research interests are in bioorganic, synthetic organic, and physical organic chemistry.


Research in the Zimmerman group focuses on the application of "smart molecules" and "smart polymers" to problems that lie at the interface of chemistry and biology or chemistry and materials. Thus, these efforts generally involve the design, synthesis, and study of novel small molecules and polymers and work in the subfields of biomedicine, chemical biology, or materials chemistry. More specifically, our research in molecular design is to develop compounds that can: (1) serve as DNA or RNA-targeted therapeutic agents, (2) function as stable and biocompatible imaging agents, (3) act as encapsulants to carry active agents and deliver them in a stimuli-responsive manner, and (4) deliver drugs or cells specifically to diseased tissue. Students in our group can learn a range of skills from organic synthesis and chemical biology to computer modeling and advanced materials development and characterization.

DNA or RNA-Targeted Therapeutic Agents: There are a number of diseases that originate in aberrant DNA or RNA, in particular the triplet-repeat diseases (TREDs) which involve expansion of sequences within our genomes. One current effort is to develop small molecules that target CTG repeats in DNA or their CUG repeat RNA transcripts, both of which cause myotonic dystrophy type 1, the most common form of muscular dystrophy. These smart molecules are designed to enter the cell nucleus, bind the target DNA or RNA specifically and operate to reverse the deleterious effects of the expanded repeats.

Bioimaging Agents: There is a critical need for fluorescent probes and MRI contrast agents that are nontoxic, long-lived, and extremely bright (fluorophores) or that provide exceptional contrast (MRI). Another challenge is developing "monovalent" agents, probes that can be linked to a single targeting agent (e.g., antibody, ligand, oligonucleotide, etc.). We are developing small molecules, polymers, and nanoparticles that fulfill these criteria and applying them in both in vitro and in vivo settings.

Degradable Polymers and Novel Delivery Systems: Polymeric materials that can degrade rapidly and completely in response to specific stimuli such as light, heat, pressure, and pH are being developed as novel encapsulating materials. The goal is to create thin, spherical shells that hold and protect their contents indefinitely, yet instantly release their cargo upon the appropriate stimulation.

Drug and Cell Delivery Systems: This effort focuses on the targeted delivery of stem cells or drugs to diseased tissues. The approach we are taking uses smart self-assembling materials, for example polymers that can coat the surfaces of stem cells and display peptides that target inflammation, or self-assembled particles that can be tracked in vivo as they travel to the target site and then release their cargo of drugs.


“Controlling the Selectivity of Non-precious Metal O2 Reduction Catalysts via Proton Transfer Kinetics,” Edmund C. M. Tse, Christopher J. Barile, Nicholas A. Kirchschlager, Ying Li, John P. Gewargis, Steven C. Zimmerman, Ali Hosseini and Andrew A. Gewirth, Nature Mater. 2016, accepted for publication.

“From Molecular Tweezers to RNA Therapeutics. Supramolecular Chemistry at the Interface of Chemistry, Biology, and Materials,” Steven C. Zimmerman, Beilstein J. Org. Chem. 2016, 12, 125-138. DOI:10.3762/bjoc.12.14.

“Alkyne Functional Hyperbranched Polyglycerols within a Previously Unobtainable Molecular Weight Range, Eli Moore, Andrew T. Zill, Cyrus A. Anderson, Steven C. Zimmerman, Claudine S. Bonder, Helmut Thissen, and Nicolas H. Voelcker, J. Polym. Res., 2016, accepted for publication.

“Dendronized Organic Nanoparticles as a Generalized Approach for Improved Fluorophore Photostability,” Ying Li, Yugang Bai, N. Zheng, Gretchen A. Vincil, Jianjun Cheng, and Steven C. Zimmerman, Chem. Commun. 2016, accepted for publication, DOI: 10.1039/c5cc09430e.

“A Double Supramolecular Crosslinked Polymer Gel Exhibiting Macroscale Expansion and Contraction Behavior and Multistimuli Responsiveness,” Xiaofan Ji, Kecheng Jie, Steven C. Zimmerman, and Feihe Huang, Polym. Chem. 2015, 6, 1912-1917. DOI: 10.1039/C4PY01715C.

"Anion Transport through Lipids in a Hybrid Bilayer Membrane,” Edmund Tse, Christopher Barile, John Gewargis, Ying Li, Steven C. Zimmerman, Andrew A. Gewirth, Anal. Chem. 2015, 87, 2403−2409. DOI: 10.1021/ac5043544.

“New Frontiers for Encapsulation in the Chemical Industry,” Brenda Andrade, Ziyuan Song, Jun Li, Steven C. Zimmerman, Jianjun Cheng, Jeffrey S. Moore, Keith Harris, and Joshua S. Katz, ACS Appl. Mater. Interfaces 2015, 7, 6359–6368. DOI: 10.1021/acsami.5b00484.

“Trigger Chemistries for Better Industrial Formulations,” Hsuan-Chin Wang, Yanfeng Zhang, Catherine Possanza, Steven C. Zimmerman, Jianjun Cheng, Jeffrey S. Moore, Keith Harris, and Joshua S. Katz,  ACS Appl. Mater. Interfaces 2015, 7,6369–6382. DOI: 10.1021/acsami.5b00485.

“Water-Soluble Polyglycerol Dendrimers with Two Orthogonally Reactive Core Functional Groups for One-Pot Functionalization,” Sikyung Yang and Steven C. Zimmerman, Macromolecules 2015, 48, 2504–2508. DOI: 10.1021/acs.macromol.5b00164.

“Self-Assembling Amphiphilic Hyperbranched Polyglycerol-Polystyrene Copolymers for Encapsulation,” Dawn Ernenwein, Ariane Vartanian and Steven C. Zimmerman, Macromol. Chem. Phys. 2015, 216, 1729-1736. DOI: 10.1002/macp.201500159.

“Hydrophilic Packaging of Iron Oxide Nanoclusters for Highly Selective Imaging,” Cartney E. Smith, Dawn Ernenwein, Artem Shkumatov, Nicholas Clay, JuYeon Lee, Molly Melhem, Sanjay Misra, Steven C. Zimmerman, and Hyunjoon Kong, Biomaterials 2015, 69, 184-190. DOI:10.1016/j.biomaterials.2015.07.056

“Chemical Control over Cellular Endocytosis of Organic Nanoparticles by Fine Tuning of Surface Functional Groups,” Yugang Bai, Hang Xing, Peiwen Wu, Xinxin Feng, Jennifer M. Lee, Xin Yi Phang, Yi Lu, and Steven C. Zimmerman, ACS Nano 2015, 9, 10227-10236. DOI: 10.1021/acsnano.5b03909.

“Rationally Designed Small Molecules That Target Both the DNA and RNA Causing Myotonic Dystrophy Type 1,” Lien Nguyen, Long M. Luu, Shaohong Peng, H. Y. Edwin Chan, and Steven C. Zimmerman, J. Am. Chem. Soc. 2015, 137, 14180-14189. DOI: 10.1021/jacs.5b09266.

“Photo-responsive Molecular Switch for Regulating Trans-membrane Proton Transfer Kinetics,” Ying Li, Edmund Tse, Christopher Barille, Andrew A. Gewirth, Steven C. Zimmerman, J. Am. Chem. Soc. 2015, 137, 14059-14062. DOI: 10.1021/jacs.5b10016.

“Targeting Toxic RNAs that Cause Myotonic Dystrophy Type 1 (DM1) by Small Molecule Inhibitors: in vivo Activities and Suppressing CUG-Induced Toxicity in a DM1 Drosophila Model,” Chun-Ho Wong, Lien Nguyen, Jessie Peh, Long M. Luu, Jeannette S. Sanchez, Stacie L. Richardson, Tiziano Tuccinardi, Tsoi Ho, Edwin H. Y. Chan, Wood-Yee Chan, Anne M. Baranger, Paul J. Hergenrother, and Steven C. Zimmerman, J. Am. Chem. Soc. 2014, 136, 6355–6361. DOI: 10.1021/ja5012146

“Isaiah Shavitt – Computational Chemistry Pioneer,” Steven C. Zimmerman and Russell M. Pitzer, Theor. Chem. Acct. 2014, 113:1488. DOI 10.1007/s00214-014-1488-3.

“Modulating Oxygen Reduction by a Hybrid Bilayer Membrane-embedded Di-copper Electrocatalyst using a Proton Transfer Switch,” Christopher J. Barile, Edmund C. M. Tse, Ying Li, Thomas B. Sobyra, Steven C. Zimmerman, Ali Hosseini, and Andrew A. Gewirth, Nature Mater. 2014, 13, 619-626. DOI:10.1038/nmat3974.

“Practical synthesis of water-soluble organic nanoparticles with a single reactive group and a functional carrier scaffold ,” Yugang Bai, Hang Xing, N. Gabriel Lemcoff, Yi Lu, and Steven C. Zimmerman, Chem. Sci. 2014, 5, 2862–2868. DOI:10.1039/C4SC00700J.

“Triaminopyrimidine-Bisamidinium Conjugates as Potential Therapeutics for Myotonic Dystrophy Type 2,” Lien Nguyen, JuYeon Lee, Chun-Ho Wong, and Steven C. Zimmerman, ChemMedChem 2014, 9, 2455-2462. VIP and Cover Article. DOI: 10.1002/cmdc.201402095.

“Polymer self-assembly: a web themed issue,” Feihe Huang, Rachel O’Reilly and Steven C. Zimmerman, Chem. Commun. 2014, 50, 13415-13416. DOI: 10.1039/c4cc90367f.


  • Larine Y. Cowan Make a Difference Award for Leadership in Diversity
  • Fellow, American Chemical Society
  • Fellow, American Association for the Advancement of Science
  • Arthur C. Cope Scholar Award, American Chemical Society
  • Buck-Whitney Award, Eastern New York Section of American Chemical Society
  • Presidential Young Investigator Award, National Science Foundation
  • Alfred P. Sloan Fellowship
  • Camille and Henry Dreyfus Teacher-Scholar Award
  • Cyanamid Academic Award
  • Eli Lilly Grantee
  • American Cancer Society Junior Faculty Award
  • School of Chemical Sciences Teaching Awards (3 total)


Lien Nguyen’s J. Am. Chem. Soc. paper (2015, 137, 14180-14189. DOI: 10.1021/jacs.5b09266.) describing the first rationally designed multi-target agent for myotonic dystrophy was highlighted by the University of Illinois Press office (  The small molecules target the DNA and RNA that cause the disease known as DM1.

Sikyung Yang’s Nature Chem. paper (2013, 5, 692–697 DOI:10.1038/nchem.1706.) was highlighted in a piece entitled "Branches reduce blinking" in Nature Materials. Sikyung’s review in Isr. J. Chem. 2013, 53, 511-520. DOI: 10.1002/ijch.201300045 was selected for the cover (click here). See also Steve’s invited editorial with Alanna Schepartz: "Supramolecular Chemistry for Biology, Materials and Medicine," Isr. J. Chem. 2013, 53, 495-496. DOI: 10.1002/ijch.201310007.

Cyrus Anderson’s JACS paper on nanoscale adhesion promoters (J. Am. Chem. Soc. 2013, 135, 7288–7295. DOI: 10.1021/ja4005283 was highlighted in RSC Chemistry World in a piece entitled "Coming unstuck with DNA." The author, Cara Sutton describes our results with a "DNA-based glue."

Chun-Ho Wong’s review on orthogonality, "Orthogonality in Organic, Polymer, and Supramolecular Chemistry: from Merrifield to Click Chemistry," Chem. Commun. 2013, 49, 1679-1695. DOI: 10.1039/c2cc37316e received the cover of that issue (click here).

Andy and Richie’s JACS paper (together with Joon Kong’s group) "Leukocyte-Mimicking Stem Cell Delivery via In situ Coating of Cells with a Bioactive Polyglycerol," J. Am. Chem. Soc. 2013, 135, 8770-8773. DOI: 10.1021/ja4005283 highlighted with the cover (click here) and was selected for a JACS Spotlight entitled "Stem cells masquerade as immune cells for therapy."

Amin Jahromi and Lien Nguyen’s paper "A Novel CUGexp·MBNL1 Inhibitor with Therapeutic Potential for Myotonic Dystrophy Type 1," ACS Chem. Biol. 2013, 8, 1037-1043. DOI: 10.1021/cb400046u was highlighted with the cover (click here) and by the UIUC News Bureau. Both Amin and Lien were highlighted in meet the authors pieces (click their names).

Jonathan Arambula's early Myotonic Dystrophy Type 1 (DM1) targeting ligand was highlighted by the UIUC News Bureau, C&E News, Science Daily, e!Science News, and United Press International.



Photo of Steven C. Zimmerman