Issue Date: April 3, 2017 | Web Date: March 30, 2017
Meet Tobin J. Marks, 2017 Priestley Medalist
Some 50 years after launching what turned out to be a stellar career in chemistry, one that has fetched almost every award and accolade a chemistry professor might hope to win, Tobin J. Marks could afford to sleep in once in a while. But he doesn’t. He still gets up at 6 AM and travels to his Northwestern University lab seven days a week.
“I get up about an hour later on the weekends,” he confesses. But even then, he deliberately does not have coffee at home. Marks says he prefers to wait until he reaches his office to have that first cup of joe. “It’s psychological. It motivates me to get going.”
It’s hard to imagine that Marks, 72, needs motivation. He exudes the stuff. To colleagues who know him well, and even to those who know of him only through his scientific publications and presentations, Marks has a reputation for being a chemistry workaholic.
That reputation is well reflected in his lengthy academic title. He is the Charles E. & Emma H. Morrison Professor of Chemistry; professor of materials science and engineering; professor of applied physics; and the Vladimir N. Ipatieff Professor of Catalytic Chemistry.
Decades’ of scientific accomplishments are encapsulated in these honorifics. According to the American Chemical Society, his achievements include “pioneering research in catalytic polymerization, organometallic chemistry, organic opto-electronic materials, and electronically functional metal oxides.” For those contributions to chemistry and more, ACS is honoring Marks with its highest honor, the Priestley Medal.
Some celebrated scientists tell stories of being lackadaisical about schoolwork in their youth, and in some cases, uninterested in science. Not Marks. “I was always enthusiastic about school and enjoyed studying,” he says. That appreciation for education was instilled by his parents. Even though they did not attend college—they needed to focus, instead, on earning a living—they put a high value on a well-rounded education, which, thanks to his mother’s strong interest in art, included frequent art lessons. “My parents made education a priority, but they weren’t draconian about it. There was no arm-twisting because I was self-motivated.”
In addition to enjoying school in general, Marks, who grew up at the beginning of the era of space exploration, was particularly fascinated by science. So was his only sibling, his younger brother Richard, who became a mechanical engineer and spent much of his career at General Motors.
While leafing through his father’s advanced high school chemistry textbook, which he keeps in his Northwestern office, Marks notes that his father, Eli, attended technical high school in the Washington, D.C., area. “My father was a voracious reader of history and novels, and he had every aspiration of becoming a scientist,” Marks says. But it didn’t work out that way. Instead of pursuing science, Marks’s father went into various businesses , including appliances, real estate, and meat, often in partnership with a relative.
Yet, no matter what path Eli Marks followed, he did so “with a spirit of adventure” that rubbed off on his son Tobin. It was that trait that could have landed the entire family in a heap of trouble when, as an eighth grader, Marks experimented with one of his favorite Sputnik-era interests: rocketry.
With scientific know-how befitting a future Priestley Medalist, the middle-school-aged Marks built rockets from metal tubes fitted with nozzles and loaded with a fuse and a fuel mixture of zinc dust and sulfur—stuff you could get in a hardware store in those days, he says.
With his father, brother, and friend on hand, Marks launched his first rocket. “It was kind of a dud. It only rose about 50 feet,” he recalls. Another friend, a high schooler with a surprisingly advanced knowledge of rockets, pointed out that the group would do better if they used a different kind of nozzle, then proceeded to sketch it.
“So I took the drawing to a machine shop and asked someone to build it,” Marks says. The machinists complied. Surprised at how ludicrous the tale sounds 60 years later, Marks asks: “Can you imagine an eighth grader walking into a machine shop nowadays, showing some sketches, and saying ‘I need you to build a rocket nozzle’?”
The larger rocket with the improved nozzle soared into the sky above a secluded spot outside the District of Columbia area where Marks grew up. “This time it rose several thousand feet,” Marks says. Asked how he and his friends measured the altitude, Marks answers matter-of-factly. “You note when the rocket reaches its maximum height, then time how long it takes to come down.” He adds that from the descent time and gravity constant you can estimate the altitude, without stopping to consider that a typical eighth grader would have no idea how to do that calculation.
Marks and his youthful entourage didn’t need to do the math to realize that they could have hit an airplane. That scenario would have brought their exercise to a catastrophic ending and landed them in serious trouble with the law. “My parents realized it too and put the kibosh on rocketry.” All was not lost, however. Marks proudly presented his rocket at that year’s school science fair.
Driven by his “fascination with what things are made of,” the budding scientist who enjoyed school went on to study chemistry as an undergraduate at the University of Maryland. Along the way, he looked for opportunities to use his science knowledge to earn a little income. For example, he tried his hand at writing science fiction short stories for magazines. Unfortunately, he says, none was published.
He had better luck doing synthesis at a U.S. Army research facility in the D.C. area. Marks worked there in the summer after he graduated from Maryland, just before beginning graduate school at Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
“We were trying to make a material that would melt at a chosen temperature and become a fluid electrolyte for a battery application.” By the end of the summer, Marks hit upon the right formulation and synthesis conditions for a foul-smelling pyridinium salt. “I remember creating a terrible stench in the lab, but I was able to show that the material was electrically conductive. I even received a certificate of merit from the Army.”
Graduate school brought Marks in close contact with F. Albert Cotton and George M. Whitesides, both of whom later became Priestley Medalists, as well as with other towering figures in chemistry. It was during that period, especially while working in Cotton’s research group, that Marks developed his profound interest in organometallic chemistry, an area in which he would later make pioneering contributions when he came to Northwestern.
Years of investigations into the structures, reaction mechanisms, and other properties of organometallic compounds featuring transition metals, actinides, and lanthanides brought Marks international recognition. It also led to a longtime consulting position with Dow Chemical, where he helped develop organometallic catalyst systems for olefin polymerization.
James C. Stevens, a Dow distinguished fellow who recently retired from the company, worked closely with Marks on olefin polymerization for many years. Stevens stresses that these catalysts are vitally important to industry because polyolefins are the largest class of thermoplastics produced worldwide. He explains that the structure of the catalyst controls the polymer’s microstructure, which ultimately determines the polymer’s macromolecular properties and its applications.
Stevens does not mince words in describing the significance of Marks’s contributions to Dow in this critical area. “Tobin is the most valuable and longest term consultant Dow has ever had. He has made a tremendous impact in the area of polyolefins. I can directly trace billions of dollars of products to Tobin’s ideas.”
Many of the details of Marks’s consultations are proprietary. But Stevens shares one noteworthy example. In one case, Marks proposed using tris(pentafluorophenyl)borane as an olefin polymerization cocatalyst, Stevens says. “That idea made all the difference in the world.” In the presence of that powerful Lewis acid cocatalyst, a given quantity of catalyst produced 10 to 100 times as much polymer as it produced without it.
Clever suggestions such as that one have led to improved control over polymer structures and properties. In fact, Marks’s ideas have enabled Dow to manufacture some 30 billion kg of advanced polyolefins that are strong, lightweight, recyclable, and inexpensive, including some that are produced from sustainable biofeedstocks. The materials are widely used in the automotive and construction industries and are also used in clothing, footwear, food packaging, and other large-volume products.
Focusing on one broad area of chemistry—for example, organometallic compounds and their use as industrial catalysts—would keep most scientists’ plates full. But Marks has room to spare. His research group also works on developing new types of materials for applications in electronics, photonics, and other technologies.
Josh W. Kurutz became intimately familiar with the range of research projects under way in the Marks lab when he served as a senior scientist in Northwestern’s analytical instrumentation center. In that capacity, Kurutz, former chair of the ACS Chicago section, worked closely with many of Marks’s students, devising ways of using advanced nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopy methods to probe the group’s new functional materials.
Kurutz points out that in the area of electronic materials, Marks and coworkers developed original procedures for preparing organic materials that function as metals, semiconductors, and insulators. These materials, which can be printed inexpensively, are being incorporated into flexible electronic circuitry for use in organic light-emitting diodes, solar cells, and other devices. In 2005, Marks cofounded Polyera, a start-up company with offices in Chicago; San Francisco; and Taipei, Taiwan, to further develop these materials and commercialize flexible display technology.
Marks’s group is also active in organic photonics, investigating new types of light-responsive compounds for use in high-speed telecommunications and computing. And the Northwestern researchers have developed novel electron donor and acceptor materials for use in organic solar cells.
As though working in all these somewhat unrelated disciplines simultaneously isn’t enough to keep an academic research group as busy as possible, Marks and his students are also known for their high-profile work in areas outside materials science. For instance, they are investigating metalloproteins and anticancer agents.
One of the keys to being productive in so many areas of chemistry research is maintaining a large research group. For the past 30 years, Marks’s group has averaged about 40 members, a large number, especially decades ago.
When asked about managing such a large group, Marks points to the excellent research environment at Northwestern, where he has been since 1970 and which he says makes this type of scientific undertaking efficient and pleasant.
He rattles off numerous factors that make it all possible, such as well-equipped and well-staffed central user facilities; ample, well-planned laboratory space; and a collegial, collaborative environment with close proximity between science, engineering, and life sciences departments, all of which makes it easy to organize multiprincipal-investigator research projects.
Convenient access to nearby Argonne National Laboratory as well as major chemical and pharma companies also plays a key role in facilitating large, productive collaborations, Marks says. And all those factors, plus being in a culturally rich city such as Chicago, with its major international transportation hub (O’Hare airport), help attract excellent students, he adds.
One of those students, Eugene Chen, conducted postdoctoral research with Marks from 1995–97. Chen, now a specialist in green chemistry and polymers at Colorado State University, began learning about his new adviser’s exceptional drive and commitment to research the day they met to discuss Chen’s research plans.
That day was a Sunday, which Chen quickly learned was a regular workday in the Marks lab. “Meeting on a Sunday morning sent a powerful yet silent message,” Chen says. Marks was showing by example that he expected any student aiming to become a professional scientist to have a strong work ethic.
Time and time again, Chen observed Marks squeezing the most out of his days, never putting off important tasks such as discussing research with students or revising journal manuscripts simply because the hour was late. “The lesson learned from observing Tobin was clear,” Chen says. “It doesn’t matter how smart you are. You need to work as hard as you can.”
University of Chicago’s Wenbin Lin also worked as a postdoc with Marks in the mid ’90s and came away with a similar impression. “Tobin was simply a great mentor,” Lin says. “I have never known anyone who is more dedicated to science than Tobin.” Lin adds that Marks never really takes time off from science, even when he’s on vacation.
As a case in point, Lin relates that at a winter research group meeting on a cold Chicago evening in the 1990s, Marks told the group about the gorgeous weather he had just experienced on vacation days earlier in Hawaii. As it turned out, Marks observed this weather mostly from indoors: He had relaxed and enjoyed the sunny ocean views from inside a condominium where he sat poring over the latest issue of the Journal of the American Chemical Society.
Despite the never ending drive to work, “Tobin is incredibly engaged with everyone in the group,” says Tracy L. Lohr, a research assistant professor in the Marks group. Lohr has observed Marks’s day-to-day interactions with group members since 2014, when she joined as a postdoc. Outsiders often assume that students in a group as large as Marks’s never see the group leader. But that’s not so, she says. “Tobin talks with everyone and has a lot of person-to-person interactions with all of us.” She adds, “He loves to tell stories about people he used to work with, people he knew long ago, and about his family. He is very open and personable in that way.”
Nearly five decades of groundbreaking research have cemented Marks’s reputation as a chemistry giant. “Tobin is a chemist’s chemist,” says Stevens, Marks’s Dow collaborator. “He’s one of a kind. He knows everything about everything, and is always businesslike and ready to work, yet he is a totally approachable guy.”
Stevens stresses that Marks’s scientific contributions aren’t simply academic breakthroughs. “His discoveries have made an impact on billions of people.” He adds, “Tobin absolutely deserves this award, and I am happy to congratulate him on his tremendous accomplishments.”
- Chemical & Engineering News
- ISSN 0009-2347
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