UH Chemist Wins Prestigious Sloan Research Fellowship

A University of Houston chemist who is simplifying the process for forming compounds used in many everyday products has received an Alfred P. Sloan Research Fellowship that recognizes exceptional researchers early in their academic careers.

Olafs Daugulis, assistant professor of chemistry, is among 118 outstanding young scientists, mathematicians and economists in the United States and Canada to be named a Sloan Research Fellow for 2008.

Since the Sloan Foundation began the awards in 1955, 35 of the fellows have gone on to win the Nobel Prize. Daugulis isn’t certain that this level of recognition is in his future. But one Nobel laureate, Harvard University chemist Elias J. Corey, has drawn on Daugulis’ research in his own work.

To make products such as pharmaceuticals or plastics, chemists begin with natural compounds – oil, for example. These natural compounds have a carbon-hydrogen bond, a single bond between carbon and hydrogen atoms. To arrive at the end product, chemists must convert this bond to another type known as a carbon-carbon bond. Currently, that involves intervening steps because they lack a direct method of conversion.

Daugulis has developed a direct method, which saves time and manpower, produces less waste and reduces costs. 

“We are taking a carbon-hydrogen bond and converting it directly to a carbon-carbon bond without going through an intermediate step,” Daugulis said. “This means fewer synthetic steps in getting to what you want to make. Instead of two to five steps, we are doing it in one.”

Carbon-carbon bonding is widely used in the manufacture of pharmaceuticals, but Daugulis is one of only a few scientists using direct carbon-hydrogen to carbon-carbon bonding. His method incorporates a metallic complex composed of palladium, and most recently copper, as a catalyst.

The fellowship comes with a $50,000 two-year grant, with which Daugulis plans to hire a graduate student.

Daugulis has published 13 articles since joining the UH faculty in 2003. He earned the degree of engineer from Riga Technical University in his native Latvia in 1991, and a Ph.D. from the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 1999. He worked as postdoctoral associate at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill from 2000-2003.

This year’s fellows include eight other faculty members, only three of whom are chemists, from Texas: one from Rice University, five from the University of Texas at Austin and two from Texas A&M University. In all, 64 colleges and universities are represented among the winners.