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Joel Henry Hildebrand Award In The Theoretical & Experimental Chemistry Of Liquids

Sponsored by ExxonMobil Research & Engineering Co.

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


Despite Geraldine L. Richmond’s myriad scientific accomplishments and the profound influence she’s had on the study of molecular structure at liquid interfaces, she didn’t grow up dreaming of being a scientist. Raised on a farm in Kansas in an area where chemists and physicists were in short supply, “I didn’t have a clue what science was,” Richmond recalls. “I thought an engineer drove a train, and that was all an engineer did.”

But her mother, a hardworking housewife, beautician, and math whiz, insisted that her four daughters acquire a technical skill set that would enable them to find jobs. In addition to bookkeeping, typing, and shorthand classes, “she made certain that I took as much math as I possibly could,” Richmond says fondly.

In the end, the Kansas native did find a lucrative job—in chemistry, a subject for which she had an aptitude. As Richmond explains, she “stuck with it” and has since carved out a successful academic career in the field. Now the Richard M. & Patricia H. Noyes Professor of Chemistry at the University of Oregon, Richmond, 58, is a pioneer in elucidating the complex bonding that goes on at water surfaces in contact with a host of other liquids as well as gases and solids. “Her work has shown emphatically the necessity for using” a combination of experiment and theory “to derive a more comprehensive picture of the complicated bonding interaction” at liquid interfaces, says Carl Lineberger, a professor of chemistry and biochemistry at the University of Colorado, Boulder.

In a seminal paper in Science in 2001, Richmond and her group used vibrational sum-frequency spectroscopy to show that weak bonding interactions exist at the interface between an organic liquid and water. These weak bonds result in significant orientational ordering of the topmost interfacial layers of water (DOI: 10.1126/science.1059514). The researchers’ follow-up molecular dynamics simulations have provided detailed insights into the interfacial structuring and bonding of both the organic and water phases that are impossible to extract from spectra alone. “What we found in those studies holds consistently across a lot of systems we’ve studied since,” Richmond says.

“With the recent oil spill and the recognition that a lot of things can happen at the liquid-liquid interface that can’t happen in other bulk environments,” she says, “I feel like we’re on the cusp of an explosion of information in this area. So I’m delighted to have been part of the early stages.”

Richmond left the Midwest in 1975 with a bachelor’s degree in chemistry from Kansas State University and headed to the West Coast, where she got a Ph.D. in 1980 from the University of California, Berkeley. She then became an assistant professor of chemistry at Bryn Mawr College, in Pennsylvania, before moving to the University of Oregon in 1985.

The Oregon professor’s work has earned her a number of awards, including the 2008 Bomem-Michelson Award, sponsored by industrial automation firm ABB. She is a fellow of societies such as the Association for Women in Science and the American Academy of Arts & Sciences. When asked which achievement makes her proudest, Richmond evokes her mother. “You can’t point at anything but your students,” she says. “The fact that they are all out and have jobs and are going on with life—wow, they really are the accomplishments.”

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


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