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Ahmed Zewail Award In Ultrafast Science & Technology

Sponsored by the Ahmed Zewail Endowment Fund established by Newport Corp.

by Lauren K. Wolf
February 14, 2011 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 89, Issue 7

Credit: Michael Barnes
Credit: Michael Barnes

At 70—an age when many others have long been retired—Charles B. Harris is still an active chemistry professor at the University of California, Berkeley, and shows no signs of slowing down. When asked about his current research, he gushes enthusiastically about the two-dimensional infrared spectroscopy experiments his students are conducting to determine the symmetry of reaction transition states in the liquid phase. “If I do ever retire,” Harris says, “it’ll be to continue doing research.”

He began his love affair with research in the basement lab of his childhood home in Michigan and continued it as an undergraduate at the University of Michigan. To support himself in college, Harris took positions in research labs and eventually ended up in an honors program, conducting biophysical studies of the structures of various keratins—the fibrous structural proteins in hair and fingernails.

When he was accepted to the Ph.D. program at Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1963, Harris wanted to continue working in biophysics. But he switched to chemistry when he was informed that he couldn’t start research immediately. It was a condition of the biophysics program to focus on classes first. “I was really put off by that,” he says. He instead began work in the group of the renowned inorganic chemist F. Albert Cotton. Harris’ “warm up” research project led to the now-famous determination of the structure of the first metal-metal quadruple bond complex (Inorg. Chem., DOI: 10.1021/ic50025a015).

Three short years later, Harris received a Ph.D. from MIT. After a year as an Atomic Energy Commission postdoctoral fellow in theoretical physics, he moved to UC Berkeley to begin his storied career as a professor. Over the past few decades, Harris and his group have used ultrafast visible and infrared techniques to elucidate the liquid-phase dynamics of a number of important reactions, including C–H and Si–H bond activation.

In one set of classic experiments, which “broke open the field of solution-phase dynamics,” says Robin M. Hochstrasser, a University of Pennsylvania physical chemistry professor, Harris’ team measured the time-dependent vibrational energy distribution between two iodine atoms during bond formation (Phys. Rev. Lett., DOI: 10.1103/ PhysRevLett.54.951). “This work had immense impact on the field of reaction dynamics of condensed phases by providing a quantitative description of atom-atom interactions and solvent-assisted vibrational energy flow,” Hochstrasser adds.

Harris’ group has also investigated electron dynamics on surfaces and at interfaces with femtosecond two-photon photoemission techniques. And the researchers continue to work in this vein: They are currently studying the localization of electrons on the aliphatic chains attached to organic semiconductors in an attempt to understand the origin of the low motilities inherent in these materials.

“I’m proud of all the experiments I’ve done,” Harris says, “but I’m most proud of the people who did them.” He has mentored about 70 students who have received Ph.D.s and 20 postdocs, including Nobel Laureate Ahmed Zewail. “People always say they don’t know how it’s possible to produce so many good” scientists, Harris says. “I tell them it is 95%” that the student is already good and only “5% my influence.”

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


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