From the Department Head
20 September 2016
Dear Alumni and Friends:
Greetings from the Penn State Department of Chemistry. We hope this new electronic edition of the Newsletter finds you enjoying life and reflecting fondly on your time at Penn State. I’m delighted to bring you news of the exciting developments from the past year in the Department.
Having just finished my first year as Department Head, I want to take the opportunity again to thank Barbara Garrison for the outstanding contributions she made as Head from 2009 to 2015. Under Barbara’s leadership, we rose in the National Research Council (NRC) rankings to our current place among the top 15 chemistry graduate programs in the country. We also continue to provide a superb learning environment, which includes award-winning instruction and hands-on research experience for our undergraduates. Our ascent in the NRC rankings was in no small measure due to the success Barbara and her predecessor, Ayusman Sen, had in hiring excellent young faculty and in attracting the best students to our programs. Barbara is now enjoying the opportunity to devote more time to her research in theoretical chemistry, and she continues to serve as Associate Head for Space and Facilities in the Department.
I want to thank all the Chemistry alumni who joined us for our reception at the ACS National Meeting in Philadelphia on August 21. It was wonderful to see so many old friends and to have them re-connect with one another. We hope to continue to do this at future meetings, so please check your email for announcements, and mark mass mailings from us as “not spam!” There is no greater pleasure for us than to hear from our former students, unless of course it is to have them visit in person. And when you do visit, you will see much that is familiar and much that has changed for the better. Chemistry continues to be a top department among its peers, but it is now only one of many strong departments in the College. Indeed, in the same NRC ranking mentioned above, the Eberly College of Science ranked 7th in the nation among such Colleges! The walls between our departments are lower than ever, and we leverage the power of the Materials Research Institute, the Huck Institutes of the Life Sciences, and the Penn State Institutes of Energy and the Environment to engage in collaborative research across disciplines. The consolidation of facilities for materials characterization, nanofabrication, and computation in the new Millennium Science Complex, together with the central facilities of the Huck Institutes, have greatly amplified our resources for fundamental research. Chemistry faculty are also key players in the translation of basic science research to the private sector through the new Invent Penn State initiative.
This year marks an important milestone for the Department as we celebrate the remarkable careers of Harry Allcock and Steve Benkovic, who have now been with the Department for 50 years and are still going strong. Steve, who was awarded the National Medal of Science in 2010, came to Penn State as an Assistant Professor in 1965, and Harry, who is now a member of the National Academy of Engineering, joined us one year later. What are the secrets to their success and staying power? They have never lost their sense of excitement about scientific discovery, nor the joy of mentoring bright students and postdocs and then launching them on their own productive careers. And the height of their accomplishments is in no small measure due to Noreen Allcock and Pat Benkovic, who have managed their laboratories for the past half-century, and whom we are delighted to see every day in the Department. We were pleased that so many former Benkovic group members and friends were able to attend the 50th anniversary celebration held in Steve and Pat’s honor this August, and we’re looking forward to welcoming the Allcock group back for their special celebration next Spring.
Several of our most talented and valuable staff members have also celebrated round-number milestones in the past year. Eric Younken and Jim Miller, both in the electronics shop, have been with the Department for 30 and 20 years, respectively, solving every imaginable instrument repair problem, wiring and re-wiring the Department and building many a new gadget for research or teaching. Ken Brown has worked in our instructional laboratories for 15 years, where he estimates he has helped over 40,000 students and 1,000 teaching assistants. Mike Joyce has worked with general chemistry faculty and students in our very busy undergraduate program office for ten years, and Dana Hosko has been with us as a research staff assistant for five years. Notably, all of the staff we are honoring for their long service this year have received at least one staff award during their careers at Penn State.
Along with honoring our longest-serving faculty and staff, we are very pleased to welcome a number of new faculty to the Department. Joining an outstanding group of Assistant Professors - Miriam Freedman (2010), Amie Boal (2013), Ed O’Brien (2014), Gerald Knizia (2015), and Xin Zhang (2015) - are our newly minted faculty Joey Cotruvo, Aaron Garner, Joe Houck, and Lauren Zarzar. Joey Cotruvo arrived at Penn State in August after completing his postdoctoral work at UC Berkeley and brings a new dimension to our growing concentration in Chemical Biology. Aaron Garner, who was formerly a Preceptor (teaching faculty member) at Harvard, joins us as a lecturer to contribute to our instructional programs in general chemistry, organic, and biological chemistry. We were able to lure Joe Houck home to central Pennsylvania after an outstanding three years as a lecturer at the University of Maryland, during which time he won the Dean’s Outstanding Lecturer Award. Joe will lead the development of our World Campus courses while contributing to residential instruction in general and organic chemistry. Lauren Zarzar, who was a postdoc in Chemistry at MIT, joins us as a new joint hire with the Department of Materials Science and Engineering. She plans to initiate a new research program in self-assembled and dynamic nanomaterials that will bridge the two disciplines. Finally, we will welcome Alexey Silakov, whose specialties are EPR spectroscopy and bio-inorganic chemistry, as an Assistant Professor in January 2017. This year we will continue to look for new faculty who can help us continue our tradition of excellence in organic and bio-organic chemistry, materials, analytical/physical, and theoretical chemistry. We are also actively searching for a new director of the NMR laboratory.
This year we also extend our best wishes to faculty and staff who are retiring or moving on to new positions. Will Castleman is retiring after 34 years at Penn State, and an 80th birthday celebration is being organized by Will’s friends and former students at the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) on April 20-21, 2017. A member of NAS since 1998, Will’s recent research has focused on molecular clusters and “artificial atoms:” clusters of metal atoms that mimic the electronic structure and bonding of individual atoms in the periodic table. Will received this year’s Cozzarrelli Prize – the award for the best paper in the physical sciences in PNAS – for his paper on the discovery of clusters that mimic rare earth elements. Will and Heide Castleman are moving to Washington, DC to be near their family, and we wish them all the best in the next chapter of their life together. We are also saying goodbye to Karl Mueller, who after splitting his time between Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL) and Penn State for the past four years will be moving full-time to PNNL, where he serves as Interim Chief Science Officer in the Environmental Sciences Laboratory. We bid a fond farewell to Alex Radosevich, who is moving to MIT to join their Chemistry Department, and to Emmanuel Hatzakis, who is leaving his position as NMR Director to take a tenure-track position in the Department of Food Science at Ohio State. Sabrina Glasgow has retired after 34 years with the department as a research staff assistant, and Mary King, Diana Nolten, and Jaclyn Stimely have moved on to other positions in the University and elsewhere. We are proud of all their accomplishments and trust that they will continue to spread Penn State pride wherever they go.
Our faculty and students have continued to collect awards and honors in recognition of their groundbreaking research and innovative teaching. Recent research awards include Squire Booker’s selection as a member of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI); NSF CAREER awards to Miriam Freedman, Ed O’Brien, and Alex Radosevich; Faculty Scholar Medals to John Badding, Squire Booker, and Mauricio Terrones; and the ACS Inorganic Nanoscience Award to Ray Schaak. We congratulate Ben Lear and Bratoljub Milosavljevic on their receipt of the Priestley Prize for Outstanding Undergraduate Teaching. I am also very pleased to report that David Boehr, Ben Lear, and Alex Radosevich were promoted to Associate Professor with tenure, and Bratoljub Milosavljevic was promoted to Senior Lecturer. What a year for our faculty! In addition to the many graduate students who have received Departmental awards for continuing research and teaching, we are also very pleased that Nicole Famularo (Keating group) won a prestigious NSF Graduate Fellowship, and Alicia Altemose, Julie Fenton, Jared Mondschein, Katheryn Penrod, and Hanna Rose all received honorable mentions. Finally, I want to express my pride in our graduate students who have organized the Chemistry Graduate Student Association (Chem GSA) as an official club at Penn State. The Chem GSA, co-advised by faculty member Scott Showalter and graduate program manager Hilary Dellapenta, works to foster the professional development of our M.S. and Ph.D. students by organizing seminars, professional and educational outreach activities, and special events such as Sponsors Days that bring students together with potential employers. Their energy and enthusiasm is palpable, and they are doing a job that faculty were doing, only better! Why didn’t we think of this before?
My first year as Head has given me a much deeper appreciation of how the professionalism and hard work of our staff enable the success of our students and faculty in executing the academic mission of the Department. We are truly fortunate to have such a dedicated group who have outlasted many a department head and who work so well together. This year a big shout-out goes to Larry Johns, our building manager and the head of the Chemistry maintenance shop, who received the Wheeler P. Davey Award for Excellence in Scientific and Technical Support. Larry and his team adroitly manage laboratory renovations and special projects, including oversight of this year’s massive renovation of Whitmore laboratory, which stayed remarkably on schedule and was completed in August. As chair of the Department’s Safety Leadership Team, Larry has also been instrumental in establishing and maintaining a new culture of safety in the Chemistry Department. Future employers will have Larry and the team of graduate students who have worked so hard on this to thank for the fact that Penn State graduates now arrive on the job well trained in laboratory safety. We also gratefully acknowledge support from Dow Chemical for sponsoring new safety initiatives in Chemistry at Penn State. For these accomplishments and more, Larry also received the 2015 Overall Staff Excellence Award for the Eberly College of Science.
As I begin my 24th year at Penn State and my second as Department Head, I feel truly fortunate to be part of this team and to see it continue on its upward trajectory. I hope that you will enjoy catching up with us through the Newsletter, and that you will have an opportunity to visit and share in the excitement of the Department in the not-too-distant future. Please stay in touch – we would love to hear from you!