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Gabor A. Somorjai Award For Creative Research In Catalysis

by Lisa M. Jarvis
February 18, 2013 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 91, Issue 7

Credit: Mitch Jacoby/C&EN
Photo of Tobin J. Marks, the Vladimir N. Ipatieff Professor of Catalytic Chemistry at Northwestern University.
Credit: Mitch Jacoby/C&EN

Sponsored by the Gabor A. & Judith K. Somorjai Endowment Fund

Tobin J. Marks has devoted more than 40 years to inventing catalysts and meticulously elucidating their structure and function. His peers describe him as a creative, energetic, and versatile scientist who has left a particularly deep imprint on the field of catalysis. For this reason, Marks, the Vladimir N. Ipatieff Professor of Catalytic Chemistry at Northwestern University, is the recipient of this award.

“Few practicing scientists have more effectively bridged homogeneous and heterogeneous catalytic science, demonstrating exceptional originality, breadth, and insight,” says one colleague. “Marks’s work has had major impact on catalytic science through pioneering studies of olefin polymerization, single-site heterogeneous catalysts, metal-ligand bonding energetics, and f-element catalysis.”

Colleagues say Marks has made particularly important contributions in the field of polymeric materials. “By combining clever synthetic strategies and using self-assembly, Marks has created and characterized an amazing array of new synthetic materials that have interesting technological applications,” says James P. Coll­man, emeritus professor of chemistry at Stanford University.

Like many chemists, Marks was led to his chosen profession by a series of inspiring teachers and mentors. Growing up in Bethesda, Md., he was turned on to science by middle and high school teachers. As he got older, he became intrigued by the central role chemistry plays in every area of science. “It’s a jump-off point for advancing so many fields,” Marks says.

As a graduate student at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Marks developed relationships with world-renowned chemists who would have a profound influence on his career. Although his thesis adviser, F. Albert Cotton, did not specialize in catalysis per se, Marks says that Cotton’s interest in studying the interface of organic and inorganic chemistry from a structure and dynamics standpoint, as well as his use of a diverse array of physical and computational techniques, took root in Marks’s own research.

When Marks joined the chemistry faculty at Northwestern in late 1970, the collaborative environment and strengths in inorganic, materials, and theoretical chemistry and in catalysis aligned with his own research interests and stimulated many new ones. Scientists at Northwestern “were not pigeonholed into narrow disciplines,” he says, allowing important research problems to be tackled simultaneously from many angles.

In addition to his academic collaborators, Marks has had a long and productive partnership with Dow Chemical, which he says presented him with stimulating problems he might not have been aware of otherwise. His work with Dow has “led to world-scale processes that bring stronger, cleaner, more recyclable plastics to humanity,” notes one colleague.

Over the past four decades, Marks has authored more than 1,050 publications, and his discoveries have led to 215 U.S. patents. His scientific achievements have been recognized with a long list of awards. Among the recent accolades are the 2012 National Academy of Sciences Award in Chemical Sciences, election to the National Academy of Engineering that same year, and the 2011 Dreyfus Prize in the Chemical Sciences.

Marks notes that his many accomplishments would not have been possible without numerous talented students and collaborators, as well as the support of his family, who over the years have understood his passion for scientific research and the mind-set that it is “not a 9-to-5 job.”

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


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