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National Fresenius Award

by Cheryl Hogue
January 27, 2014 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 92, Issue 4

Credit: Mark Leibowitz
This is a photo of William R. Dichtel.
Credit: Mark Leibowitz

Sponsored by Phi Lambda Upsilon, the National Chemistry Honor Society

William R. Dichtel’s research breakthroughs are reverberating through organic chemistry and materials science, and this work has earned Dichtel, 35, the Fresenius Award.

It might come as a surprise that a favorite part of Dichtel’s job as an assistant professor at Cornell University is one that many academics might find dreary—teaching sophomore organic chemistry in a lecture hall filled with hundreds of students.

“The cliché about the course is that organic chemistry is all about memorization. I’m really trying to fight that,” Dichtel says.

To that end, he features a “molecule of the day” with every lecture. The compound might be an emulsifier that makes citrus soda appear opaque—and resemble juice—rather than translucent. Or Taxol, the cancer-treating drug first derived from the Pacific yew. Or Kevlar, the synthetic fiber used in bulletproof vests.

“The students love the class once they realize that everything that they touch and everything that they wear, or that they eat” contains organic chemicals, Dichtel says. “I can see the eyes light up.” One student even took the unusual step of posting some of Dichtel’s molecule-of-the-day illustrations to the news-sharing site Reddit, deeming them the “best orgo slides ever.”

Dichtel is best known in the chemistry world for his research success in organic chemistry and materials science. In 2013, Dichtel was named an early-career Arthur C. Cope Scholar (C&EN, March 4, 2013, page 58). He has also won a raft of other awards, which include a National Science Foundation Career Award, a Beckman Young Investigator award, and a Sloan Research Fellowship.

“He is a best-in-generation materials/polymer chemist,” says Timothy M. Swager, the John D. MacArthur Professor of chemistry at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where Dichtel earned his undergraduate degree.

After finishing at MIT in 2000, Dichtel moved to the University of California, Berkeley, where he completed his doctorate under Jean M. J. Fréchet in 2005. Dichtel says his years in Fréchet’s group, which included 35 to 50 people, helped form his multidisciplinary approach, combining tools of polymer chemistry, organic chemistry, and self-assembly. “The group was working on a huge array of different projects that were all at the interface of polymer chemistry and some other field. I learned about many, many different challenges,” he says.

Dichtel next did a postdoc in an unconventional joint appointment at the University of California, Los Angeles, in J. Fraser Stoddart’s lab and at California Institute of Technology with James R. Heath’s group. Stoddart, now a professor of chemistry at Northwestern University, says Dichtel “went out of his way to work at the postdoctoral level in research laboratories that do very different things and have very different cultures.”

Dichtel’s group at Cornell focuses on the assembly and integration of nanostructured materials. His former mentors recommend keeping an eye on the group’s work. Swager of MIT says, “Dichtel has initiated a spectacular research program with transformative grand slams that lay the foundations for new generations of organic electronic materials.”

Dichtel will present the award address before the Division of Polymeric Materials: Science & Engineering at the fall ACS national meeting in San Francisco.


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