Meet the 2020 & 2021 ACS Catalysis Lectureships for the Advancement of Catalytic Science Winners - ACS Axial | ACS Publications
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Meet the 2020 & 2021 ACS Catalysis Lectureships for the Advancement of Catalytic Science Winners

Founded in 2012 by ACS Catalysis and the ACS Division of Catalysis Science and Technology, the annual ACS Catalysis Lectureship for the Advancement of Catalytic Science award recognizes significant contributions within the last seven years by an individual or a team of researchers to the understanding and/or practice of catalysis.

Since 2018, the Lectureship has been awarded annually on a rotating cycle recognizing researchers in three traditional subdisciplines of catalysis:

  • Homogeneous or molecular catalysis, 2020
  • Biocatalysis and enzymology, 2021
  • Heterogeneous catalysis, 2022

I recently sat down with our two most recent award recipients, Professor Stahl and Professor Ward. Read the interviews below.

2020 Recipient for Homogeneous Catalysis: Professor Shannon S. Stahl, University of Wisconsin-Madison

Although copper-catalyzed methods are notoriously difficult to study, your group performed detailed studies of these processes, which led to new mechanistic insights.  Those insights led to major catalyst improvements including the ability to oxidize key functional groups (e.g., alcohols, amines, and hydrocarbons) and eventually to one of the most sought-after reactions in catalysis ― the ability to catalyze amide bond formation with dioxygen as the only reagent and water as the only by-product. Tell us about the importance of these copper-catalyzed reactions.

Redox reactions in organic chemistry commonly involve the addition or removal of an equivalent of hydrogen (H2). The copper nitroxyl reactions you mention are remarkable because of the ease with which they remove two protons and two electrons from an alcohol. The reactions feature a unique cooperative mechanism that involves both the copper and nitroxyl working together as one-electron oxidants to achieve the net to electron process. The low kinetic barrier involved in this reaction not only allows alcohols to be converted into aldehydes and ketones but also provides the basis for oxidative coupling reactions in which an aldehyde intermediate reacts with a nucleophile before undergoing a second dehydrogenation step. The latter reactivity provides the basis for the amide coupling reactions you mention, In addition to oxidative coupling reactions to form heterocycles.

What is your group working on now?

In general, my group and I are fascinated by redox reactions of many types. We are especially interested in reactions that involve two coupled half reactions. Redox reactions of this type are associated with enzymes (oxidases) as well as homogeneous catalytic reactions, such as palladium and copper-catalyzed aerobic oxidations – including the copper/nitroxyl reactions noted in your previous question. Increasingly, we are exploring other catalytic processes that involve coupled redox half-reactions, including reactions that use heterogeneous catalysts and those involved in electrochemical energy conversion and electrosynthesis. We are intrigued by the mechanistic similarities and differences involved in these different domains of catalysis. In most cases, the net result is the same – removing or adding two protons and two electrons – but the details matter. We are especially motivated to elucidate unifying principles that could guide the development of new catalysts that could lead to practical applications.

What advances are you hoping to see in your field over the next decade?

Over the past 20 years, I’ve seen considerable growth in the ability of catalysis researchers to migrate between conventional subdomains of our field, including biocatalysis, homogeneous catalysis, heterogeneous catalysis, and electrocatalysis. One can expect that continued evolution in this direction will lead to a merging of the language that we use and experimental techniques that we are comfortable with. The sharing of concepts and ideas across these historically segregated subdisciplines should lead to considerable advances, both in the fundamental understanding of catalysis and practical applications.

As a young person, did you envision yourself becoming a chemist, or did you have other aspirations?  What ultimately drew you to the study of chemistry, and eventually to homogeneous catalysis?

I was pretty naïve as a “young person” and it would be difficult to say that I had “aspirations of becoming a chemist.” My path is the convolution of my intrinsic interests in math and science, together with the impact of many influential people. The journey was not a linear one. My parents did not have college degrees, but they valued education. I went to college just “to get a job”, but I was fortunate to have the freedom to explore my interests along the way. After following my interests for a number of years, I found myself in a faculty position at the University of Wisconsin doing what I love. This was not a premeditated or aspirational journey.

As you look back on your research career so far, are there key events or milestones that stand out as particularly meaningful in your mind?

The milestones in my career are mostly related to the people who influenced my journey along the way, starting with my high school chemistry teachers and an influential classmate who had common interests. But, there were so many other positive influences, mentors, and role models. I can still remember the conversation with my graduate advisor and mention that I could consider a career in academics. As I mentioned, I was rather naïve, and the thought of an academic career had never crossed my mind.

What have you found to be important in training the next generation of chemists?

I wish I had a level of self-awareness that could respond meaningfully to this question. I love what I do, and my hope is to share this enjoyment of learning and discovery with the next generation. I have been fortunate to have the chance to work alongside so many outstanding students and postdocs who seem to resonate with this approach.

Who will be speaking in your award symposium at the Fall ACS Atlanta meeting?

The symposium will include former students and postdocs, colleagues, and collaborators. Unfortunately, it was possible to include only a subset of the individuals that have had a major influence on me and our catalysis research.

Why do you choose to regularly publish your research in ACS Catalysis?

The journal does an amazing job of representing the breadth and quality of the field of catalysis across all subdisciplines. It reaches the audience I am trying to reach with much of the work we do in my group.

Congratulations once again on your receipt of the 2020 ACS Catalysis Lectureship for the Advancement of Catalytic Science!

Keep up with Professor Stahl on the web and via Twitter.

2021 Recipient for Biocatalysis: Professor Thomas R. Ward, University of Basel

A key theme in your research has been the cross-disciplinary approach of using chemistry, biology, and engineering to develop artificial metalloenzymes (ArMs) for organic synthesis both in vitro and in vivo.  Tell us about the importance of this strategy, and important applications, especially new methods that are uniquely enabled by ArMs.  

Gerald Joyce (Salk) likes to define biology as “chemistry with a memory.” Artificial metalloenzymes enable us to endow organometallic catalysts with a genetic (and evolvable) memory. In my opinion, this is an untapped asset that opens fascinating perspectives in synthetic biology: the artificial cofactor can be viewed as a vitamin that adds new (vital) functions to a cell/organism. We are working on medical applications of this concept.

What is your group working on now?

My group continues work on artificial metalloenzymes with a focus on applications in synthetic biology: bring new-to-nature chemistry to a cellular environment. To achieve this, our main foci include: a) earth-abundant cofactors, b) engineered protein scaffolds, c) microfluidic screening, and d) reaction cascades.

What advances are you hoping to see in your field over the next decade?

I would be delighted to see the artificial metalloenzyme community grow and move towards large-scale applications to address unmet synthetic challenges. For this, we need more organic chemists aware of the challenges and limitations of both homogeneous- and enzymatic catalysis. I feel that the community is competitive, fair, and supportive: there is plenty of room for everyone to work on important projects without unhealthy competition.

As a young person, did you envision yourself becoming a chemist, or did you have other aspirations?  What ultimately drew you to the study of chemistry, and eventually to biocatalysis and enzymology?

Becoming a chemist was clearly “not an option” for me as a kid. My father was a chemist! However, as the last child of a family of six, it was important for me not to “copy my siblings.” I eventually ended up as a biochemistry major. In my third year at university, I switched my major to chemistry, fascinated by catalysis ― the miracle of consumption and regeneration! I moved from ligand design and optimization to proteins as hosts for organometallic catalysts. I saw a unique opportunity to develop new concepts in catalysis. I am delighted to see that the field has gained momentum.

As you look back on your research career so far, are there key events or milestones that stand out as particularly meaningful in your mind? 

Upon returning from my postdoc with Roald Hoffmann (Cornell University), I started my independent career in Switzerland. Professor André Merbach at the University of Lausanne advised me: “The future is bio-inorganic chemistry”. My first three Ph.D. students focused on various, rather unrelated projects: metal-based chirality in catalysis, siderophores, and supramolecular devices. I met the late Professor François Diederich who had heard me give a talk. He warned me, “Tom, you need to focus!”

This statement coincided with me accidentally stumbling on Whiteside’s 1978 paper (Conversion of a protein to a homogeneous asymmetric hydrogenation catalyst by site-specific modification with a diphosphinerhodium(I) moiety, J. Am. Chem. Soc. 1978, 100, 306). I immediately realized that this paper could form the basis of an innovative research program. I was willing to invest all my energy into this endeavor. Looking back, it combined the “bio-inorganic” and the aforementioned “focus” advice.

What have you found to be important in training the next generation of chemists?

I like to work outside of my comfort zone. This forces me to rely on my coworkers to educate me. I feel that this is very gratifying for them. In my opinion, the most important trait of a good researcher is their creativity. I try my best to nurture my coworkers’ creativity.

Who will be speaking in your award symposium at the Fall ACS Atlanta meeting?

I am delighted that all speakers that I have contacted agreed to speak at the award symposium, hopefully in-person. In my opinion, each one of them stands out for their creativity in their respective fields. In addition, they are highly inspiring speakers. These include: Andy Borovik (UC Irvine), Rebecca Buller (ZHAW), John Hartwig (Berkeley), Todd Hyster (Cornell), Akif Tezcan (UC San Diego), and Nick Turner (Manchester).

Why do you choose to regularly publish your research in ACS Catalysis?

ACS Catalysis is a superb journal: excellent research, high visibility, quick turn-around, and expert editorial and refereeing process.

Congratulations once again on your receipt of the 2021 ACS Catalysis Lectureship for the Advancement of Catalytic Science!

Keep up with Professor Ward on the web and via Twitter.

Nominations for the 2022 ACS Catalysis award will open later this summer, ~August 2021, with a focus placed on heterogeneous catalysis in the upcoming cycle. Nominations will be due in early November 2021. All queries about the award may be emailed to Award.ACSCatalysis@acs.org.

Past ACS Catalysis Lectureship Winners:

 

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