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National Fresenius Award

by Susan R. Morrissey
February 6, 2012 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 90, Issue 6

Credit: Janell Schaak
Raymond E. Schaak, professor of chemistry, Pennsylvania State University
Credit: Janell Schaak

Sponsored by Phi Lambda Upsilon, the National Chemistry Honor Society

A lot can happen in a decade. Take, for example, this year’s National Fresenius Award winner, Raymond E. Schaak, a professor of chemistry at Pennsylvania State University. Since 2001, he’s gone from a newly minted Ph.D. to an accomplished researcher.

“If one did not know when professor Schaak received his Ph.D., or the dates of his publications, one might assume that the person was midcareer—perhaps having been independent 20 years” on the basis of his impressive list of publications in top-notch journals, says University of Alberta chemistry professor Jillian M. Buriak. “To reach this number at professor Schaak’s age is incredible and is indicative of a highly creative and successful scientist who clearly can motivate his group to do top-level research.”

Schaak, who is 36, received a B.S. degree in chemistry from Lebanon Valley College in 1998. He earned a Ph.D. with Thomas E. Mallouk at Penn State in just three years. After a postdoc at Princeton University, he joined the Texas A&M University faculty in 2003. He moved to Penn State in 2007.

Research in the Schaak lab focuses on nanoparticle synthesis. He has shown that materials typically prepared through high-temperature sintering or melting can be synthesized at much lower temperatures by sequentially applying simple chemical reactions to nanoscopic templates. The technique, which he calls “metallurgy in a beaker,” exploits the reactivity and small size of nanoscale solids to sidestep diffusion limitations that are present in larger scale systems. This method is used to create and discover new materials for applications in catalysis, energy, optics, electronics, and magnetism.

But for Schaak, his work is not about any one accomplishment; it’s about the approach his group uses to tackle research problems.

“Our most significant accomplishments are when we discover something new that we did not expect but then are able to back up and understand the ‘whys’ and ‘hows’ behind the discovery,” Schaak says. This new knowledge can then be used “to predictably find something else that is new.”

“Ray is one of the rising stars of inorganic chemistry,” says Barbara J. Garrison, head of Penn State’s chemistry department. “Rather than simply making solids and nanocrystals like many others, Ray sets out to answer how and why,” she notes, adding that “extrapolating forward, we can expect truly great things from him in the future.”

“While there are a large number of younger—and older—scientists who are working on nanoparticle synthesis, Ray has stood out,” echoes Francis J. DiSalvo, a Cornell University chemistry professor. “He has followed a different path than most, who make endless variations on synthesizing simple materials such as CdS or a few oxides. His development of new methods as well as exploring new classes of materials will have a large impact in the field of materials chemistry.”

Schaak is an associate editor of ACSNano and is on the editorial advisory board of the Journal of Solid State Chemistry. He recently won a Research Corporation for Science Advancement Scialog Award for Solar Energy Conversion (2010–13) and a Camille Dreyfus Teacher-Scholar Award (2007–12). With more than 80 publications to his credit, Schaak has trained nearly 15 Ph.D. and master’s students and more than 25 undergraduates.

Schaak will present the award address before the ACS Division of Inorganic Chemistry.


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