Issue Date: February 28, 2011
Arthur C. Cope Scholar Awards: Craig J. Hawker
Colleagues call Craig J. Hawker “one of the world’s most outstanding leaders in the design and synthesis of functionalized macromolecules,” “simply a chemistry superstar,” and “absolutely the most distinguished organic/polymer/materials chemist of his generation.” But Hawker, 47, remains humble, generous, and supportive of others.
From his school days in Australia to his current polymer research, Hawker, a professor of materials, chemistry, and biochemistry and director of the Materials Research Laboratory at the University of California, Santa Barbara, says, “I just went down what was the most fun path for me.”
As an undergraduate at the University of Queensland, he enjoyed organic chemistry, so he continued with graduate work at the University of Cambridge. In postdoctoral work with Jean Fréchet, then at Cornell University, Hawker began to make waves by developing the first convergent synthesis of dendritic macromolecules. His synthetic procedures allowed such precise control over structure, composition, and properties, a colleague says, that they “changed the direction of polymer science.” Timothy M. Swager, a professor of chemistry at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, adds that the work is among the most-cited synthetic polymer papers ever published.
After a few years at the University of Queensland as a Queen Elizabeth II Fellow, Hawker accepted a research position at IBM’s Almaden Research Center in 1993. Again, he looked for scientific simplicity with real-world applications: He wanted to make porous dielectric materials with starting materials that didn’t require the rigorous conditions necessary for anionic polymerization. “That was when we started our work in living free-radical polymerization, a much easier way to make these well-defined materials,” he says. “That satisfied an IBM demand and also really caught the imagination of the external community.”
The work, which involved the reversible capping of radical chain ends with nitroxyl radicals, was “pioneering,” according to a colleague. The colleague adds that it enabled the synthesis of novel polymers for a wide array of applications, including block copolymer lithography.
Hawker continued his quest for “very simple but very powerful chemistry” when he moved to UC Santa Barbara in 2005. He wanted to extend to polymer synthesis the concept of click chemistry, a method of joining together “spring-loaded” small molecules in a modular fashion. He recognized that he could, in benign solvents, use click chemistry to selectively control multiple functional groups on a polymer.
In one dramatic demonstration, he ran a reaction in tequila. “If I could get 100% yield in José Cuervo,” he says, “it gets the message across that even within cheap alcohol containing impurities, additives, and who knows what, you can do the chemistry with the same efficiency.”
Hawker’s contributions have been recognized by many other awards, including election as a Fellow of the Royal Society, the International Union of Pure & Applied Chemistry’s DSM International Performance Materials Award, and the ACS Award in Applied Polymer Science. His 300 or so publications have been cited over 25,000 times, and a colleague notes that Hawker is among the 100 most-cited living chemists—particularly impressive given his youth.
“Professor Hawker is unrivaled,” his colleague says, “in terms of the number of novel and important new concepts that he discovered and new fields that he helped launch.”
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