Two chemists from the University of Houston have been chosen as 2020 Sloan Research Fellows, an honor that recognizes outstanding early-career faculty selected for their potential to revolutionize their fields of study.
Jakoah Brgoch and Judy Wu, both assistant professors of chemistry working in different fields, are among 126 researchers in eight disciplines – ranging from chemistry to neuroscience, physics and economics – selected for the honor.
“To receive a Sloan Research Fellowship is to be told by your fellow scientists that you stand out among your peers,” says Adam F. Falk, president of the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation. “A Sloan Research Fellow is someone whose drive, creativity, and insight makes them a researcher to watch.”
Brgoch, whose lab works in both computational and experimental inorganic chemistry, develops materials with applications in energy, manufacturing and other fields. Wu, a computational quantum chemist, is currently working on expanding modern applications of an old chemical concept – aromaticity.
Wu said the Sloan Foundation’s recognition of fundamental discoveries is encouraging in an era when much of the attention on science has focused on practical applications. “What we are doing is asking a new question of an old concept,” she said. “This encourages me to believe the scientific community still values fundamental work. At the core, it is curiosity-driven research.”
Wu earned a National Science Foundation CAREER award in 2018 and a National Institute of Health MIRA award in 2019 for her proposal suggesting that connecting aromaticity and hydrogen bonding – previously considered to be separate ideas – could change the way chemists view hydrogen bonds and potentially guide experimental efforts in the design of advanced materials and functional molecules. She continues to work with aromaticity, a fundamental concept in organic chemistry that is usually associated with ring-shaped molecules that increase chemical stability, describing her work as “putting old concepts into a new light.”
“There are no dead fields, just new questions,” she said. “A lot of these ideas, people think of them as basic concepts in the textbooks. We are showing that they can have practical implications.”
Brgoch’s lab does both computational and experimental work – using machine learning to predict materials with specific properties followed by synthesizing the material to confirm the predictions. Most researchers specialize in one or the other, collaborating in order to cover the spectrum from prediction to production, but Brgoch teaches his students how to do both.
Doing both in one lab is unusual, but he said it allows his students to see the full process. “It gives a comprehensive and unique perspective to the advantages and disadvantages of both approaches,” he said. “They learn what questions to ask and which questions can’t be addressed by a calculation or an experiment alone.”
He also earned an NSF CAREER award in 2019 for his work in predicting and then synthesizing new compounds for energy-efficient LED-based lighting. There are only a handful of materials used in all of the LED lights around the world, and they are expensive; his research group employs data science to seek cheaper alternatives that outperform current materials.
Winners of the Sloan fellowship receive a $75,000 award to be used to advance their research.
David Hoffman, chairman of the UH chemistry department and himself a Sloan Research Fellow in 1992-94, said the recognition is an acknowledgement of the work done by Brgoch and Wu.
“My colleagues and I in the Department of Chemistry knew early on that Jakoah and Judy were exceptional scientists with all the right attributes to become leaders in their fields,” he said. “To have the Sloan Foundation recognize them with fellowships is a wonderful acknowledgment that the scientific community agrees with us. We are fortunate to have them on the faculty at UH.”