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E. Bright Wilson Award in Spectroscopy

Sponsored by Coherent and ACS

by Susan R. Morrissey
January 18, 2010 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 88, Issue 3

Credit: George Flynn
Credit: George Flynn

Receiving an award from ACS is an honor, but when that award carries the name of one’s former mentor, it’s especially meaningful.

Such is the case for George W. Flynn, a professor of chemistry at Columbia University, who is being honored with the E. Bright Wilson Award in Spectroscopy. Wilson, the award’s namesake, was one of Flynn’s graduate thesis advisers.

“Being honored by an award in Wilson’s name is very special,” Flynn says. “I am particularly pleased to be recognized for using spectroscopy to study molecular dynamics in gases and scanning probe methods to follow the atomic site behavior of interfaces on surfaces.”

The research that earned Flynn this award involves work he started less than a decade ago. It focuses on using scanning tunneling microscopy (STM) to study the structure of molecules adsorbed on surfaces. His research group has imaged numerous surface adsorbates—including synthetic polypeptides and long-chain, functionalized hydrocarbons—by using functional groups of the molecules as STM markers.

The STM markers include sulfur and bromine atoms and carboxyl groups, which have all been used to study the chirality of molecules adsorbed at the interface between a racemic mixture and a solid surface. Flynn’s research group has also used STM to probe chemical reactions of small organic halides on iron oxide surfaces in ultrahigh vacuum and the structure and electronic properties of single sheets of graphite, known as graphene.

In addition to Flynn’s work on interface chemistry, his lab has also studied chemical dynamics. Specifically, the group has looked at molecular collisions that lead to chemical reactions or energy exchange between molecules. To do this, the lab developed a diode laser infrared absorption probe technique with a resolution of 0.0003 cm–1.

“George Flynn’s work combines an unusual mixture of innovation and deep scientific insight,” says Nicholas J. Turro, a chemistry professor at Columbia. The work for which Flynn is being honored, Turro continues, “has provided fundamental understanding of and deep insight into the structural and dynamic processes occurring at liquid-solid and vacuum-solid interfaces and the mechanisms of chemical reactions taking place on surfaces.”

“The beauty of George’s work is that he makes and interprets difficult measurements always with an eye toward deep physical understanding,” notes F. Fleming Crim, a chemistry professor at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. “This approach is the hallmark of a great scientist.”

Flynn, 71, received a B.S. from Yale University in 1960. He then studied under Wilson and John D. Baldeschwieler at Harvard University, where he earned an M.A. in 1962 and a Ph.D. in 1965. After a postdoc at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, he joined the Columbia faculty in 1967.

A member of the National Academy of Sciences and the American Academy of Arts & Sciences, he has received numerous other honors including the Herbert P. Broida Award from the American Physical Society in 2003 and the Presidential Teaching Award from Columbia in 2000. In addition to overseeing some 40 Ph.D. students during his career, Flynn is also a proud grandfather.

Flynn will present the award address before the Division of Physical Chemistry.


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