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ACS News

ACS Petroleum Research Fund helped shape career of 2023 Nobel laureate

by Sara Cottle
June 29, 2024 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 102, Issue 20


Conceptual illustration with a hand holding a lightbulb in front of a coin.
Credit: Madeline Monroe/C&EN/Shutterstock

As of today, over 30 Nobel laureates have received American Chemical Society Petroleum Research Fund (ACS PRF) grants for research projects. This includes Moungi Bawendi, recipient of the 2023 Nobel Prize in Chemistry. Bawendi got an ACS PRF grant in 1991 for his proposal “Spectroscopy of Chemically Synthesized Nanometer Size Semiconductor and Diluted Magnetic Semiconductor Crystallites.” This project served as fundamental research and helped him on his path to success.

“The ACS PRF generously supported my initial work on quantum dots,” Bawendi says in an email. “Their commitment to funding fundamental research was an important component of my early career success.”

Joerg Schlatterer, director of the Office of Research Grants at ACS, says, “American Chemical Society PRF grants are known for launching careers.”

Many other leaders in the chemical sciences have received ACS PRF support early in their careers. For example, ACS president Mary K. Carroll received early-career funding when she was creating the Aerogel Lab at Union College with Ann M. Anderson.

The PRF got its start in 1944, after seven oil companies were ordered in a court case settlement on the misuse of patents to set aside funds. These funds were converted into a trust, known as the PRF Trust, to support fundamental research in the petroleum field. Findings of PRF projects have the potential to lead to innovation in the chemical sciences.

Until 1999, ACS was responsible only for distributing research funds, but in 2000 all assets were transferred to the society and it assumed financial management of the endowment. Since then, ACS has provided $15–$20 million annually to faculty members at institutions that grant doctoral degrees and at those that serve undergraduates to pursue new research areas, or at least new to them. The two tracks don’t compete with each other, which is intentional.

Funding is available in both tracks for new investigators. Those can be recently appointed assistant professors or established faculty members who are looking to test something novel and might not have any preliminary data. That is a unique aspect of the ACS PRF: preliminary data isn’t a requirement to apply for the funding.

Proposals go through a rigorous review process that includes soliciting three expert reviews per proposal. The ACS PRF committee, which consists of subject matter experts, discusses the reviews and makes funding recommendations. Louis Brus, another 2023 Nobel laureate in chemistry, supported the ACS PRF as a member of the Committee on the Petroleum Research Fund in 2002–3. These recommendations must be approved by the ACS Board of Directors; approved proposals can receive funding of up to $125,000.

For many research projects, the initial investment can help new investigators create preliminary data that can be used for larger grants down the road, such as for the National Science Foundation, National Institutes of Health, Department of Energy, and Department of Defense.

The program serves research areas including synthetic organic chemistry, geochemistry and biogeochemical cycling, inorganic chemistry, physical organic chemistry, surface science, chemical physics and physical chemistry, polymer science, geology and geophysics, chemical and petroleum engineering, and materials sciences. No matter the discipline, the common thread is the focus on fundamental, petroleum-related research. The scope of research compliant with the PRF endowment comprises many topics of interest in sustainability and green chemistry, such as the development and fundamental study of new catalysts and the upgrading or use of methane and carbon dioxide.

“Our faculty that receive PRF grants are very commonly in chemistry departments, but we also support faculty members that do work in other departments, like chemical engineering, physics, in geology or geosciences departments, materials science, or atmospheric sciences departments. So the funded faculty are actually quite diverse in terms of discipline,” Schlatterer says.

This is the first year that faculty members at undergraduate-serving institutions who receive an ACS PRF grant will be invited to apply for a supplement of up to $25,000 for the department.

“The goal of these supplements is to boost the research capacity of the department overall,” Schlatterer says. “This is a big thing. We are very excited and can’t wait to see which eligible undergraduate departments submit a supplementary request and what impact the additional funds will have.”

Schlatterer estimates that ACS PRF grants support just over 1,000 students annually, including undergraduates, graduates, and postdoctoral researchers.

“It’s really important to invest into departments that primarily serve undergraduate students and bolster their research capacity because those undergraduate students will be the next generation of professionals,” says Schlatterer. “It doesn’t matter if they go directly into industry or into a chemistry or physics graduate program. Research experiences lead to competencies that are very valuable to the entirety of society.”

Several professors say that the grant challenges them to think outside their comfort zones and that it has allowed them the flexibility to support promising undergraduate research students. That can lead to coauthoring papers and ultimately helps students be competitive when applying for fellowships and programs to continue their education. Projects funded by the ACS PRF also contribute to progress toward the United Nations sustainable development goals, which include addressing quality education and taking action on climate change.

Even with the new option of supplementary funding, Schlatterer says, the ACS PRF program is already thinking about the future and believes figuring out how to best support interdisciplinary, collaborative projects will be an important consideration as the fund moves forward.

Meet some PRF researchers

Yu Lei.
Credit: Michael Mercier
Yu Lei

Yu Lei, chair of and associate professor in the Department of Chemical and Materials Engineering at the University of Alabama in Huntsville, received an ACS PRF grant in 2015 by writing the proposal “Direct Conversion of Methane to Valuable Chemicals Using Single-Atom Catalysis.” Lei’s original research topic, methane, was later developed to include ethane and propane. The goal was to convert these light alkanes to alkenes, which requires creating double bonds. One of the papers that came from this research landed as a cover story in Physical Chemistry Chemical Physics, a journal of the Royal Society of Chemistry.

Lei is an experimentalist, which means that most of his other projects require him to work with a theoretician.

The grant “basically asked me to focus on my own strength.” Lei says. “I like to collaborate with people, but then this grant actually forced me to find my own potential.”

Lei had been motivated to get ACS PRF funding because he had seen it promote the status and career of his PhD adviser. He says it’s definitely a factor in his achieving tenure.

Beyond his own career, Lei feels that one of the best things about getting the grant was the opportunity to assist the next generation of scientists. He was able to sponsor two graduate students and also involve some undergraduate students. He recalls that one of the student authors who worked on the project with him became a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Virginia and, more recently, Oak Ridge National Laboratory and continues to work on catalysis research. “In terms of education purposes and workforce development, I think [the grant] is very helpful,” Lei says.

Andrew Petit.
Credit: Mika Perez
Andrew Petit

Andrew Petit, an associate professor of chemistry and graduate program adviser at California State University, Fullerton, received an ACS PRF grant in September by writing the proposal “Using Computation to Explore New Directions in the Photochemistry of Photobases.” Petit is a computational theoretical chemist interested in photochemistry. His research group has recently been focused on photobases, which are typified by the substituted quinolines. These molecules are weak bases, meaning they are not very reactive under standard conditions. But when they absorb light and become electronically excited, their basicity increases by 10–11 orders of magnitude. Up the road from Petit is Jahan Dawlaty’s lab at the University of Southern California (USC), which performed key experiments that revealed structure-function relationships among the family of five-substituted quinolines. Petit’s lab has computationally expanded the scope of those relationships beyond this family. His most current ACS PRF–funded work aims to boost our comprehension of photobasicity in three main directions: understand mechanistically how changing the structure of these compounds affects the extent to which other excited states play a role in photochemistry; continue to expand computationally on the other reactions the photobases can do; and more completely understand how to tune the properties of a photobase when it’s incorporated into a larger transition-metal complex.

One of Petit’s favorite things about the ACS PRF grant is the emphasis on supporting students. It has allowed him to pay students to do research, helping them to gain skills in critical thinking and problem-solving, which he believes will help them in their scientific pursuits.

“There are funds through the PRF that will facilitate students from my lab to travel to my experimental collaborators, Jahan Dawlaty at USC and Ryan Hunt at Loyola Marymount University, and perform experiments, which I think is really cool for the students to get to see,” Petit says. “Especially for undergraduate and master students, it’s exciting to allow them to see some of the synthesis, some of the computation, and some of the actual spectroscopy.”

Petit is also a fan of how flexible the fund is in enabling recipients to evolve.

“If one of the ideas that you’ve proposed turns out to be a dud, you can pivot and follow some new direction that could be really exciting,” he says.

Sarah Tasker.
Credit: Courtesy of Sarah Tasker
Sarah Tasker

Sarah Tasker, an assistant professor of chemistry at Franklin & Marshall College, received an ACS PRF grant in 2018 with the proposal “Synthesis of Oxetanes via a Formal Formylation.” Tasker applied for the grant when she accepted a position at Franklin & Marshall but was still a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. She was keen to develop a new methodology for a class of molecules underexplored in literature, S-aryl thioformates. Tasker was inspired by sulfur’s ability to stabilize anionic and radical intermediates, which sounded fertile and feasible, two important words when you’re conceptualizing an undergraduate program. The proposal was initially focused on making oxetanes—four-membered rings with oxygen—through the photochemical addition of S-aryl thioformates to alkenes.

“It turned out that it was a total and utter failure,” Tasker says. “But I did have a line in the proposal that said something like, ‘You know, we might find other interesting reactivity in a sort of normal grant way,’ and it turns out that we did.”

From there, the project branched in two different directions. One involved the addition of reagents to alkenes to make sulfides; the other—after Tasker discovered that treating the reagents with a simple amine base released carbon monoxide—on gas-releasing molecules.

Tasker is used to pursuing funding from agencies that require a lot of preliminary results or require that the project is almost close to completion.

“The PRF’s mission is really to support basic science, and they’re willing to do that without a lot of preliminary results,” Tasker says. As a postdoctoral fellow, she didn’t have any preliminary results in the proposal, and because her first approach hit roadblocks, those results wouldn’t have been particularly promising. “They’re willing to fund new directions and new ideas and new investigators in a way that I find really valuable.”

Tasker received the grant at a key time in her career: the start. She says the ACS PRF Undergraduate New Investigator grant at a primarily undergraduate institution goes a long way in supporting a lot of undergraduates to do good science.

The ACS PRF turned out to be a significant first grant for Tasker, especially at a liberal arts college. It has also been a stepping stone to other funding opportunities for her—most recently, the National Science Foundation’s ​​Faculty Early Career Development (Career) Program award.

Valerie Welborn.
Credit: Courtesy of Valerie Welborn
Valerie Welborn

Valerie Welborn, an assistant professor in the Department of Chemistry at Virginia Tech, received an ACS PRF grant in September for her proposal, “Mitigating Product Inhibition in Enzymes with Synthetic Glycosylation: Biodesulfurization of Petroleum Products.” Welborn’s project looks at enzyme catalysis—specifically, a type of enzyme from prokaryotes, an example being bacteria or the ancient photosynthetic microorganisms cyanobacteria. The enzyme she has narrowed in on is supposed to remove sulfur from crude oil exploitation, thus ultimately helping reduce sulfur pollution. This enzyme catalyzes the reaction that it’s supposed to quite well, but when substrates bind to the active site, conformational changes occur, trapping the substrate in the active site and effectively blocking the enzyme. Welborn’s research group is looking to address this problem in an unconventional way, aiming to keep the structural integrity of the enzyme intact and preserving its activity as much as possible. The idea involves adding sugar to the outside of the protein to open the active site and let the product escape. This research will all be done on the computer, but if the researchers’ construct works, they’ll seek out an experimental collaboration to try to validate further.

Welborn says the ACS PRF grant has assisted in shaping her independent career, which will ultimately help her get tenure. She initially heard about the fund from a couple of colleagues, but the requirements didn’t quite fit what she wanted to do at the time. When she came across a specific enzyme problem that had potential for the desulfurization of fossil fuels, she decided it was a good match.

Welborn feels that, compared with other grant programs, the ACS PRF is funding different and new ideas, which she likes. “I was glad that they gave me a shot, because there is a lot that can go wrong with my idea because it’s so new,” she says. “There was a little bit of a leap of faith by PRF, you know, and so it might be like a high-risk, high-reward type of thing, but not many funding agencies would support that.”



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