New avenues for
innovation in Texas
Molecular model of a polymer aggregate that will be used to control crystal nucleation at the newly-funded Welch Center for Advanced Biomaterials Crystallization.Courtesy of Gül Zerze
I t began with a headline. Kami Hull, an organic chemist at the University of Texas at Austin, had teamed up informally with Megan Robertson, a chemical engineer at the University of Houston, during the 4-day WelchX Retreat—the first ever—in July. As one of the event’s activities, each woman had written imaginary headlines that forecast worst-case scenarios based on their research interests.
Robertson’s contribution was jarring, Hull recalls. “It was, ‘There’s now more microplastics on beaches than grains of sand,’ which is pretty horrible,” she says. As they talked, Hull and Robertson recognized an opportunity to leverage their areas of expertise—designing novel chemical catalysts and polymer chemistry, respectively—to devise a solution. In short order, they turned their idea into a grant proposal, “Chemical Recycling of Polystyrene to Value-Added Polymers and Chemicals,” which subsequently was awarded a $100,000 pilot grant from The Welch Foundation.
It may be unusual for funded collaborations to emerge so quickly, but this is all part of an ongoing effort by Welch’s leadership to explore new approaches for stimulating innovative chemistry research. “It’s an experiment,” says Catherine Murphy, chair of the foundation’s scientific advisory board. “A successful experiment, where there will be science happening that would otherwise not have happened at all.”
A new direction
Since 1954, The Welch Foundation has been a dedicated source of funding for chemistry research in Texas. Key programs include 3-year research grants for established laboratories—the foundation issued nearly $28 million worth of these in 2023 alone—as well as supporting thousands of undergraduates embarking on chemistry-related majors.
While these programs have been a critical lifeline for many scientists, the foundation’s leadership team recently began to question whether they were pursuing all available avenues to drive the growth of chemistry research in the state. Murphy notes that many chemistry undergraduates ultimately drift onto other career paths. Even with the research grants, she says, it remains hard to quantify how directly this money is moving the needle of scientific progress relative to other funding sources. “Our standard research grant is, on average, one-seventh of the total funding of a lab that we support,” says foundation president Adam Kuspa.
Kuspa took office in 2019, alongside a mostly new board of directors and slate of scientific advisers who were eager to shake up the status quo. “If we want to boost the scientific power of the state of Texas in the field of chemistry, maybe there are better ways,” Murphy says. Thinking beyond the foundation’s current reach inspired the launch of four new funding initiatives: Welch eXperimental (WelchX) Collaboration Retreat, Catalyst for Discovery Program Grants, Welch Postdoctoral Fellows of the Life Sciences Research Foundation Grants, and Equipment Grants.
The intention for these new grant programs is to collectively benefit chemists throughout their career—amplifying academic and job opportunities while creating new lines of support for innovative research programs that would be otherwise difficult to fund.
Creating early opportunities
Funding undergraduate laboratory research is one way to get aspiring chemists started, but the number of institutions where college students can engage directly with research is limited even in a state as academically rich as Texas. “There are many, many small chemistry departments in the state of Texas,” Kuspa says. Most of them have just a handful of faculty, who often have minimal resources for instrumentation.
The equipment grants address this need by issuing one-time payments of $75,000 to support the purchase of laboratory equipment. Even a little money can go a long way, according to Kuspa. “You can buy a tabletop mass spectrometer for $50,000–$150,000,” he says. Importantly, many first-round grant recipients have leveraged their foundation support to obtain matching institutional funds.
These investments can remake a small department. Murphy notes that the standards set by the American Chemical Society for certifying undergraduate programs require a core set of specialized instruments. By providing additional programs with laboratory equipment, more Texas students will be able to embark on a national-class chemistry education at their local college.
Aspiring chemists can encounter another early-career bottleneck after completing graduate school as they struggle to find a well-matched postdoctoral position in a competitive job market. Kuspa points out that this moment is an especially important crossroads in pursuing a chemistry career. “If you look at … people that are successful in garnering a nationally competitive postdoctoral fellowship, about 9 out of 10 of them become research chemists,” he says.
Yet with limited avenues of federal support available, it can be difficult for many labs to find the funds to support multiple postdocs. To fill this void, Welch teamed up with the Life Sciences Research Foundation to fund new PhD graduates working at the interface of biology and chemistry. The goal of these grants is to support talented young scientists who are joining Texas labs from out of state, such as Heidi Pak, a new postdoc in Joseph Takahashi’s lab at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center (UTSW).
Pak’s research focuses on understanding the interplay between food intake and circadian rhythms—the body’s internal timetable—and how caloric consumption and the timing of eating influence overall metabolic health. “I came to UTSW primarily because it’s a metabolism research hub,” Pak says. Welch’s support has been critical in allowing her to pursue a challenging project at the intersection of multiple research fields, she says. “I do admit it’s high-risk research—but at the same time, if it’s high risk, there’s high reward.” This research could reveal dietary or metabolic interventions that help people stay healthier into old age, she adds.
Faculty members just starting their labs are understandably laser focused on building a research portfolio that will earn them tenure. But once they have achieved that, scientists have a rare opportunity in front of them, Kuspa says. “It’s a perfect time to start thinking about broadening horizons, expanding the kinds of projects you want to bring into your laboratory.
The WelchX Collaboration Retreat and accompanying grant program target midcareer scientists who are seeking opportunities to pursue collaborative research programs that take them outside their comfort zone. The retreat itself is modeled on Scialog, a program run by the Research Corporation for Science Advancement in which senior scientists facilitate “matchmaking” among junior faculty to create new joint projects.
The beginning of the first WelchX Retreat was about socializing and building relationships, with relatively little formal discussion of science. Hull found this a refreshing change of pace from conventional conferences and says that “everyone I talked to just thought it was fabulous.” She appreciated the opportunity to casually engage with colleagues well outside her primary research area. The second half of the retreat emphasized project development. It yielded 10 proposed collaborations between the newly networked chemists. Welch funded 5 of these projects; all 5 focused on using different chemical research approaches to tackle sustainability issues.
Hull and Robertson aim to repurpose polystyrene plastics with catalysts that allow direct functionalization of polymers without breaking them down—an energy- and cost-efficient strategy that could yield versatile chemical building blocks for making other industrial and pharmaceutical products. “I’d feel better about having that polystyrene to-go container if I knew it was being turned into Tamiflu or something like that,” Hull says.
Catalyzing transformative research
Scientists with the most ambitious large-scale projects often face a particular struggle, as they labor to persuade agencies like the National Science Foundation or Department of Energy to bestow millions of dollars to support their innovative research center or platform. “One of the downsides of those grants or challenges is that you have to pull in so many people, and in many cases the teams you pull together seem forced,” says Jeffrey Rimer, a chemical engineer at the University of Houston.
Welch’s Catalyst for Discovery grant program is designed to give researchers an additional option between massive center grants and individual lab grants, and to support transformative research from smaller teams of Texas-based chemists with $5 million in funding. Rimer is coordinating one of four projects being funded in the program’s first year. Along with six colleagues, he will be using this investment to build out the Welch Center for Advanced Bioactive Materials Crystallization. Rimer describes this as a tight and cohesive team, many of whom are already established collaborators.
Rimer’s research involves understanding how different molecules form crystalline structures. In recent years, thinking has emerged that the longstanding model for this process may not apply to most crystalline compounds, and chemists like Rimer have grappled with understanding alternative crystallization mechanisms. The center will combine experimental and computational methods to better understand these nonclassical pathways and uncover ways to predict and customize how different molecules crystallize or decrystallize. This work is especially salient for drug manufacturing and delivery, as it could enable efficient production of stable pharmaceuticals that behave predictably within the human body.
“We’re using this center as a way to establish a pharmaceutical consortium,” Rimer says. But he is also enthusiastic about the potential to leverage the center’s research to engineer better materials for catalysis, manufacturing, and other applications.
These new grant programs represent experiments for Welch, and the foundation’s leadership team will be closely watching how things develop after the first awards. Kuspa is optimistic that this fresh infusion of funding will ultimately help the chemistry community in Texas flourish, and he reiterates that the programs are very much a long-term investment. “If you’re a builder, you build a house and it takes a year,” he says. “In basic science, sometimes it takes decades before the impact is obvious, yet we still know it’s important to do.”
The WelchX Collaboration Retreat is one of four new grant programs launched by The Welch Foundation in 2023 to support researchers exploring fundamental chemistry research. Courtesy of: The Welch Foundation