Jeremy May: NSF CAREER Award Recipient

Jeremy May: NSF CAREER Award Recipient
Increasing Efficiency and Yield of Complex Chemical Reactions

MayComplex chemical syntheses are often a sequence of 30-40 different reactions; the process can be slow with plenty of waste and not much yield.

Jeremy May, an assistant professor of chemistry at the University of Houston, is developing synthetic strategies to increase the efficiency and yields of chemical reactions. The research is the focus of a $600,000, five-year National Science Foundation (NSF) CAREER Award to May. NSF CAREER awards are competitive grants given to talented junior faculty members who best exemplify the role of teacher-scholar.

“If we can develop chemical transformations that do more in each individual step, that allows us to use a lot fewer reactions to make the end product,” said May, who specializes in synthetic organic chemistry at UH’s College of Natural Sciences and Mathematics.

May sees similarities between his work and any other increase in efficiency. “In auto manufacturing, if you can do three welds at once, it is going to be faster than if you do one weld at a time on the car frame,” he said.

Complex Compounds in Less Time with Greater Yield

The grant covers the development of a reaction strategy that can form multiple molecular rings within a single transformation.

“In one reaction, it goes from something that is fairly simple to something that is complex,” he said. “We’re working on compounds with complex interlinked structures; we’re hoping this reaction strategy will be useful to others studying these types of compounds.”

In this strategy, as the number of reactions decrease, the overall yield increases. “Each step has a certain chemical yield. If we can cut the number of steps (or reactions) in half, it more than doubles the yield because it is like a geometric or exponential progression,” he said.

May is targeting complex chemical compounds that can be tested for biological activity. These structures may have a role in disease management, such as efforts to treat cancer and malaria.

Often scientists have insufficient amounts of these compounds for testing. Finding ways to speed up the process of synthesizing complex chemical structures can help scientists increase the availability of compounds of high interest to research.

Compounds Shared with Medical Center

When May’s lab makes compounds, they are shared with colleagues in the Texas Medical Center where they are kept in a library of chemicals available for screening. “If they are looking to block the actions that help a cancer cell replicate, they can screen all the chemical compounds in the library to see if one shuts down the mode of action.”

“Our work won’t go directly into a clinic or directly tackle a disease, but we will kick the chain of events off,” he said.

Outreach to Middle School Students

Part of May’s grant includes an educational activity with KIPP Sharpstown College Prep. The fifth through eighth grade school is a free college-preparatory public school serving the Gulfton and Sharpstown neighborhoods of southwest Houston.

“I learned about the school through a friend who teaches history there,” May said. “My goal is to get the students on campus for a day so they can start visualizing what college is like.”

Each June, KIPP Sharptown’s seventh and eighth grade students will tour May’s lab and learn about the work done there and the process of doing scientific research. UH undergraduate and graduate students working in May’s lab will talk about preparing to get into college, the college experience, and opportunities after college.

“The KIPP students get a pair of safety glasses, so they can tour the lab safely, and they take them home as a reminder of their visit,” May said. “KIPP is a wonderful institution with the goal of ensuring their students become life-long learners capable of excelling in college.”

May has a genuine love of chemistry and enjoys sharing his enthusiasm with young students.

“My main interest is in chemical reactivity – how do chemical bonds form, can we develop new catalysts or new transformations,” he said. “They are tools that can be applied later on; they increase our understanding of how molecules react and how atoms come together to form bonds. While we’re developing these new tools, we may be able to apply them to diseases and solve some problems.”

- Kathy Major, College of Natural Sciences and Mathematics