Web Date: May 12, 2011
Waugh Wins Welch Award
For his pioneering work in nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopy, MIT chemist John S. Waugh has won this year's Welch Award in Chemistry. The $300,000 award is given annually by the Houston-based Welch Foundation to foster basic chemical research that benefits humankind.
Waugh, 82, is best known for figuring out how NMR--which until the late 1960s was largely restricted to interrogating solutions--could be extended to solids. "He took what was a very useful tool for studying small molecules in solution and greatly expanded its possible applications to a range of solid materials that can't be studied effectively by any other method," notes James L. Kinsey of Rice University, who chairs the Welch Foundation's scientific advisory board. Solid-state NMR has since provided a window into the structure of proteins, membranes, viruses, and other large biomolecules.
Waugh first dipped his toe in the then-nascent field of NMR as a graduate student at Caltech in the 1940s. "The word NMR had not even been invented yet," Waugh says. The field was dominated by physicists, he adds, but it was nevertheless "clear that the technique might have chemical applications."
Waugh proved this point by building his own NMR spectrometer with a magnet borrowed from some cosmic ray physicists and batteries scavenged from a war surplus submarine. He used his NMR instrument—which was about the size of a small car and "looked nothing like today's spectrometers"--to nail down the then-controversial structure of the bifluoride ion.
After landing a faculty job at MIT, Waugh went on to show how to use combinations of external fields to sharpen the NMR spectra of solids, which are typically broad and diffuse. He also developed a theoretical explanation of the strategy, known as average Hamiltonian theory.
He later developed a method that dramatically increased NMR's ability to detect rare nuclei such as carbon-13. And he provided critical theoretical underpinnings for magic-angle spinning, a technique used to boost the resolution of solid state-NMR.
Before doing his Ph.D. research at Caltech, Waugh earned a bachelor's degree in chemistry from Dartmouth. His previous accolades include the 1983 Wolf Prize in Chemistry.
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