Issue Date: January 19, 2009
George A. Olah Award In Hydrocarbon Or Petroleum Chemistry
Sponsored by the George A. Olah Endowment
Cynthia M. Friend, this year's recipient, is "one of the outstanding surface scientists in the world and one who has consistently built connections between surface science and molecular chemistry—organic and hydrocarbon chemistry in particular," says Roald Hoffmann, a Nobel Laureate and the Frank H. T. Rhodes Professor of Humane Letters at Cornell University.
When asked the secret to her success, Friend says "To this day, I'm really excited about what I'm doing. To some extent, it's an endurance contest, but mainly, it's staying focused on the research that you want to do." And her dedication is obvious: When C&EN called to ask about her accomplishments, Friend, a renowned professor at Harvard University for 26 years now, was in the laboratory hard at work.
During her time at Harvard, Friend, 53, has established "a general approach to the study of complex transformations of hydrocarbon molecules on surfaces that combines advanced experimental and theoretical approaches," says colleague Eric N. Jacobsen, the Sheldon Emery Professor of Chemistry at Harvard. According to Friend, some of her most consequential work has been in desulfurization chemistry. Her group has determined general principles that govern removal of sulfur from hydrocarbons on molybdenum surfaces. That specific mechanistic work has led to the more general, related discovery that the production and transfer of alkyl radicals to metal atoms, as well as to oxygen atoms bound to metals, is facile on surfaces.
More recently, Friend's research group has been studying partial oxidation chemistry on gold surfaces, an area that she says contains "interesting puzzles." They have shown that higher molecular weight olefins are epoxidized by gold, satisfying "a major industrial need," Jacobsen explains. In addition, Friend has been able to control the structure of both the gold surface and its absorbed atomic oxygen overlayer to manipulate the selectivity and extent of the reactions.
All these accomplishments in surface science were made possible by Friend's use of an imaginative combination of complex physical tools, such as vibrational and photoelectron surface spectroscopy and isotopic labeling; her understanding of organometallic chemistry; and her thoughtful creativity, Jacobsen says.
Friend acquired her skills and knowledge during her time at the University of California, Davis, while working toward a bachelor's degree. "I was originally interested in biochemistry, but I felt that a strong background in physics and chemistry would be helpful because things seemed to be going in that direction," Friend says. In 1977, she graduated from UC Davis and went on to the doctoral program at UC Berkeley. Four short years later, in 1981, with Ph.D. in hand, she moved on to Stanford University and a postdoctoral position in the department of chemical engineering there. In 1982, she joined the faculty at Harvard and thereafter "built a world-class laboratory in surface chemistry," Hoffmann says.
For more than 20 years, Friend was the lone female chemistry professor at Harvard. She "has been a role model to a generation of women chemists," Hoffmann says. "It's not easy to be Harvard's only female chemist.
"At the same time, she has been an outstanding, inspirational teacher," Hoffmann continues. When asked about her professorial duties, Friend again displays her drive and passion for all things science: "One of the things that I like about teaching is that it's a constant challenge," she says. "We must innovate in teaching just as we do in research."
Friend will present the award address before the Division of Catalysis Science & Technology.
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