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Arthur C. Cope Scholar: Shannon S. Stahl

by Jeff Huber
March 4, 2013 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 91, Issue 9

Credit: Courtesy of Shannon Stahl
Shannon Stahl
Credit: Courtesy of Shannon Stahl

For Shannon S. Stahl, oxygen is more than just the lifeblood of humanity. It’s also the lifeblood of his research.

Since joining the chemistry faculty at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, in 1999, Stahl has garnered international recognition as a “leading scholar in catalytic oxidation chemistry,” fellow UW Madison professor Clark R. Landis says. Through the use of molecular oxygen in catalytic transformations of hydrocarbons, Stahl has accomplished such feats as the oxidative amination of alkenes, oxidation of alcohols to aldehydes and ketones, and oxidative functionalization of arene and alkyne C–H bonds. Taken together, these achievements “could transform chemical production, from commodities to pharmaceuticals,” Landis believes.

In the case of the pharmaceutical industry, Stahl explains, oxidation reactions are typically avoided because they’re often difficult to control. Stahl’s research group, however, is working alongside several companies in the pharmaceutical industry to address this challenge. The UW Madison chemistry professor says he is “pretty optimistic” that the collaboration will lead to approaches for using aerobic oxidation reactions in large-scale pharmaceutical synthesis within the next few years.

Despite such impact on the world of organic chemistry, Stahl, 42, admits that he feels like somewhat of an outsider to the field. A former undergraduate at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, Stahl earned a Ph.D. in transition-metal organometallic chemistry under John E. Bercaw at California Institute of Technology and carried out postdoctoral research in bioinorganic chemistry under Stephen J. Lippard at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “I still consider myself an inorganic chemist,” he maintains, “but the ability to impact the world of organic chemistry is quite satisfying.”

Stahl finds extensive synergy between the two worlds. “A fundamental understanding of transition-metal reactivity and inorganic chemistry can be used as a foundation to design new chemical reactions and impact the way people make organic molecules,” he believes. “After all, most redox-active catalysts are transition metals.”

For his years of accomplishments, Stahl has amassed numerous accolades, including a National Science Foundation Career Award in 2001, a Camille Dreyfus Teacher-Scholar Award in 2003, and an Alexander von Humboldt Senior Research Award in 2010. It’s an impressive résumé that colleagues such as Landis can’t help but admire. “Shannon Stahl has an extraordinary record of achievement for his 12 years as an independent researcher, and his scholarly trajectory is still trending strongly upward,” Landis concludes. “Stahl is eminently worthy of the honor associated with the Cope Scholar Award.”



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