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E. Bright Wilson Award In Spectroscopy

by Celia Henry Arnaud
February 18, 2013 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 91, Issue 7

Credit: Courtesy of Steven Boxer
Photo of Steven G. Boxer, Camille & Henry Dreyfus Professor of Chemistry, Stanford University.
Credit: Courtesy of Steven Boxer

Sponsored by the ACS Division of Physical Chemistry

When Steven G. Boxer graduated from Tufts University in 1969, he was all set to become a theoretical chemist, but the Vietnam War got in the way. Just as he was starting graduate school at the University of Chicago, he was drafted. He was granted conscientious objector status and served his time working in Angelo Scanu’s lab at the University of Chicago Pritzker School of Medicine.

While there, Boxer ran an amino acid analyzer but also had the chance to undertake his own projects. “I have many notebooks filled with results that never saw the light of day,” Boxer says, but the experience “shifted my interests toward experimental work.”

When he returned to his graduate studies, Boxer abandoned thoughts of being a theoretical chemist. He instead joined the lab of Gerhard Closs, a physical organic chemist. Closs introduced him to photosynthesis, a topic that Boxer has studied throughout his career.

Boxer received his Ph.D. in 1976. He then headed west to join the chemistry department at Stanford University. He was promoted to associate professor in 1982, and in 1986 he became a full professor. He is now the Camille & Henry Dreyfus Professor of Chemistry.

“When I started at Stanford, we set out to make organic donor-acceptor systems related to photosynthetic charge separation. We were quickly overtaken by much better synthetic people and shifted to working on bacterial photosynthetic reaction centers,” Boxer says. “This shift toward biophysical problems has dominated my work since then.”

Much of his research has been enabled by his efforts to extend electronic and vibrational Stark spectroscopy to the condensed phase. For these advances, Boxer, 65, is receiving the award.

Stark spectroscopy, the study of spectral shifts and splittings in electric fields, is used in the gas phase to measure dipole moments and polarizabilities. Before Boxer, Stark spectroscopy was only rarely used with condensed-phase systems because of the difficulty of applying large electric fields to aqueous samples.

“Through a series of experimental innovations and models, Boxer has solved this problem, opening up this fundamental method for applications to biological systems, as well as to molecules such as ionic transition-metal complexes that are only soluble in water,” says W. E. Moerner, the Harry S. Mosher Professor of Chemistry at Stanford.

“We originally used electronic Stark spectroscopy as a way to probe the properties of the excited states of pigments in reaction centers,” Boxer says. “This led to studies of mixed-valence systems and vibrational Stark effects, which we now use to probe electrostatics in proteins.”

“Boxer, through a series of technical innovations and complementary theoretical analysis, totally changed the scope, applicability, and information content of Stark spectroscopy,” says Graham R. Fleming, vice chancellor for research and Melvin Calvin Distinguished Professor of Chemistry at the University of California, Berkeley.

In 1995, Boxer received an Arthur C. Cope Scholar Award from ACS. In 2008, he received the Earle K. Plyler Prize for Molecular Spectroscopy & Dynamics and was also elected to the National Academy of Sciences.

Boxer will present the award address before the ACS Division of Physical Chemistry.


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