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June 16, 2010

Zewail Is Named 2011 Priestley Medalist

Awards: Nobel Laureate honored for development of ultrafast probe methods in chemistry, biology, and materials science

Mitch Jacoby And Marc Reisch

SPACE-TIME PROBE: Zewail (center) and coworkers developed the methodology that underlies the unique capability of the femtosecond electron microscope seen here (in the rear of the lab). Robert Paz/Caltech View Enlarged Image
SPACE-TIME PROBE Zewail (center) and coworkers developed the methodology that underlies the unique capability of the femtosecond electron microscope seen here (in the rear of the lab).
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Zewail Douglas A. Lockhard Photography

Ahmed H. Zewail, the Linus Pauling Professor of Chemical Physics & Professor of Physics at California Institute of Technology and the 1999 Chemistry Nobel Laureate, has been selected to receive the 2011 Priestley Medal by the American Chemical Society Board of Directors at its June meeting. Zewail will be honored with ACS's most prestigious award in recognition of "his development of revolutionary methods for the study of ultrafast processes in chemistry, biology, and materials science."

Zewail's pioneering work in femtochemistry—the study of chemical processes on the femtosecond (10–15 second) timescale—established methodology for following the intricacies of chemical transformations as reactants evolve into products by way of fleeting reaction intermediates. His laser-driven "pump-probe" techniques, which were demonstrated initially on gas-phase reactions, captured "snapshots" of intermediates that existed for barely more than the femtosecond period of a molecular vibration.

The Zewail group's success in tracking gas-phase reactions with unprecedented time resolution motivated researchers worldwide to develop clever ways to apply pump-probe methodology to numerous chemical systems. The success also drove Zewail and his students to develop new types of ultrafast probe methods based on electron diffraction, crystallography, and microscopy (C&EN, Dec. 24, 2007, page 36).

Armed with this new generation of powerful tools, the Caltech team has captured spectra and close-up images and videos of crystal and surface phase transitions, hydration phenomena in biological macromolecules, and structural dynamics of bilayer membranes. And recently Zewail's group demonstrated a novel microscopy method for imaging protein vesicles and whole unstained cells with high contrast and nanometer resolution on the femtosecond timescale (Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. USA 2010, 107, 9933).

"This work is changing not only what we know, but also how we think about the interplay of structure, dynamics, and function in molecular systems," says David A. Tirrell, a Caltech professor of chemistry and chemical engineering. Tirrell adds that the advances made by Zewail's group "are yielding qualitatively new insights into the atomic and molecular origins of complex chemical, physical, and biological behavior."

Rice University chemistry professor James L. Kinsey concurs. He notes that Zewail's discoveries are "opening up the new field of physical biology"—a discipline in which biologically important processes can be studied as never before at full atomic resolution on timescales ranging from femtoseconds to hours.

Even as Zewail's passionate commitment to fundamental science continues, in his words, to leave him awake at night thinking of ways to improve experiments, the Caltech scientist serves as a dedicated spokesman stressing the importance of science education in the U.S. and in developing nations alike. As a member of the President's Council of Advisors on Science & Technology and an enthusiastic science ambassador, Zewail travels widely, lecturing in Europe, Asia, Africa, and the Middle East on what he describes as "the beauty and critical role of science in our lives."

"Even after all these years, the most rewarding thing for me is to see the sparkle in the eyes of all these young people learning about basic science. It still gets me very excited," Zewail says.

The board also voted to award Michael E. Strem, president of high purity chemicals maker Strem Chemicals, the 2011 Charles Lathrop Parson Award, and Zaida Morales-Martinez, emeritus professor of chemistry at Florida International University, the ACS Volunteer Service Award.

The Parson Award recognizes Strem for his contributions to the future of the chemical enterprise through innovative international programs for young chemists. It also acknowledges Strem's groundbreaking initiatives in forging new collaborations between business and education.

Strem is a cofounder of the Newburyport Education Foundation, set-up in 1990 to foster collaboration between businesses in Newburyport, Mass., and local schools. Strem also helped create a U.S./German graduate student exchange program over the last decade through a joint effort of the German Chemical Society and the Northeast Section of the ACS.

Morales-Martinez has been a key figure in advancing diversity issues in ACS. She was instrumental in the establishment of the society's Committee on Minority Affairs in 1993 and has been an enthusiastic supporter of Project SEED and the ACS Scholars program.

Chemical & Engineering News
ISSN 0009-2347
Copyright © 2011 American Chemical Society
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