In celebration of the 21st annual Student Research Week (March 19-23) at Texas A&M as well as March as Women’s History Month, the College of Science is taking five with five different women involved in both innovative research at Texas A&M and milestone firsts. Today’s segment features Texas A&M chemist Marcetta Y. Darensbourg, the first chemist elected to the National Academy of Sciences while on faculty at Texas A&M University.
Darensbourg, an internationally respected expert in synthetic and mechanistic inorganic chemistry and member of the Texas A&M Department of Chemistry faculty since 1982, is a leader in the development of methods to perfect hydrogen-powered fuel cell technology. She was appointed a distinguished professor of chemistry in 2010 and as a Davidson Professor of Science in 2017.
A native of Kentucky, Darensbourg earned her doctorate in inorganic chemistry at the University of Illinois in 1967 and held faculty appointments at Vassar College (1967-1969), State University of New York, Buffalo (1969-1971) and Tulane University (1971-1982) prior to beginning her independent career at Texas A&M.
Although she was trained as an organometallic chemist with earlier research programs in transition metals, Darensbourg began exploring the inorganic biocatalysts within hydrogen-controlling microorganisms for use in clean-energy initiatives more than two decades ago. Her laboratory currently specializes in the novel approach of introducing Earth-abundant elements — iron, nickel and sulfur — into hydrogen-producing molecular catalysts intended to replace platinum as the kick-starter in these fuel cells.
In addition to her National Academies membership, Darensbourg is an inaugural fellow of the American Chemical Society (2009) as well as a fellow of both the Royal Society of Chemistry (2014) and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences (2011), one the country’s oldest and most prestigious honorary learned societies. A pioneer in many areas of chemistry, she became the first-ever female recipient in 1995 of the ACS Distinguished Service in the Advancement of Inorganic Chemistry Award, the society’s top annual honor for inorganic accomplishment. Moreover, she was celebrated last year with the 2017 ACS Award in Organometallic Chemistry recognizing impact in that field.
We caught up with Darensbourg during a break in the Big Easy action at the American Chemical Society Spring 2018 National Meeting and Expo, and she agreed to share her thoughts on all things research, from experiences to inspiration as well as the future, in which she sees abundant potential in both nature and students.
What made you decide to pursue a science career and to do so in large part at Texas A&M University?
“I am curious, and I love learning. I love asking a question, getting the answer and telling everyone about it. I like working with others, particularly young people, and helping them find their paths in something that they love as well. Texas A&M University has been and is supportive of research, and the facilities and scientific staff here in Chemistry — built and supported over years — allowed me to do the experiments of my dreams. I was able to assemble a viable research group immediately on arrival to College Station in 1982, and the Welch Foundation grants also provided a solid base of financial support.”
Take us back to running your first chemistry experiment. What was it, and what were some of your first impressions?
“This had to be when my sister and I got a chemistry kit for Christmas with the little tongs, test tubes and a little flame burner for heat. I think we made hydrogen sulfide gas without burning the house down. Wow. Put two things together and get something entirely different; smelly and a puff of smoke. That’s chemistry, and it is everywhere. Wow.”
In that same vein, describe the moment when you got the notification that you’d been elected to the National Academy of Sciences.
“I was actually speechless. I knew that I had some stature in the scientific community and that I had been nominated a few years earlier, but I had no expectations. There are so many wonderful, superb scientists who are not members; why should I be different? After I recovered my voice, my first response to the Academy member who called and announced this to me was, ‘This will mean so much to my department and university.’ The second response was gratitude to my coworkers, colleagues, mentors and collaborators; my parents, my high school chemistry teacher and, of course, my husband Don who has been the major pillar in my support network for over five decades.”
Beyond the National Academy of Sciences, what has been your most rewarding success or accomplishment, as well as your biggest hurdle thus far in your career?
“Some aspect of my personality made me curious about and able to ‘see’ the science in a natural world of biological chemistry to which an inorganic/organometallic chemist such as myself might contribute. Chemical bonds and elements behave the same, whether in the chemist’s reaction flasks or in spectral analysis instruments or in the heart of an enzyme. With the power of structure analysis from protein crystallography labs guiding the way, I could contribute to really intriguing problems in the biological catalytic control of hydrogen and methane production. Perhaps most significantly, I had the wonderful opportunity to be a leader as this field developed. I asked to join with me in this field a superb synthetic chemist who was shortly to become my biggest rival. I did this because competition is good; I wanted the field to advance with superior contributors. And it did. Secondly, and equally important to me, are the fantastic students — graduates, undergraduates and postdoctoral fellows — who elected to work with me. I so admire the international students who leave their homes and families to build their own careers in science here in Texas. They become loyal Aggies.
“My biggest hurdle? I could always be smarter. More seriously, the research grants and funding is the monkey that is always on our backs. I do appreciate the USA’s system of competitive research funding. It is by and large fair, it refreshes the pool of talent and ideas, and it has worked well for our country. But it is stressful and prompts many young talents to pursue careers elsewhere. I don’t have the answer to this problem.”
Chemistry is fundamental to so many other disciplines, scientific and otherwise. As a pioneer in the field, you’ve experienced many exciting developments, but what are some of the biggest advances you see on the horizon?
“We go through cycles of needs. Tools that identify features of importance to fully characterize a material or a process eventually become limited in time and resolution; i.e., reach their limits of detection. But during the time that certain types of instrumentation are king, advances abound in synthesis, new materials, catalysis, imaging agents, mechanistic interpretations, etc. When new faster and more sensitive tools develop, then new applications show up. They are being developed even as I write.
“I expect applications in medicine, both detection of abnormalities and therapies, will be mind-boggling in the next decades. The horrors of side effects from heavy metal poisoning of tumor growth will be eliminated as we better understand biological paths. I foresee development of new materials that will be able to largely solve our global energy issues through solar and wind conversions — and better instruments for detecting pollutants in the sea, in the earth and in the air. I foresee education that produces an educated populace that can wisely interpret the choices to be made in applying scientific advances for human welfare versus the health of the planet. I pray for the planet.”
Why should students get involved in research, particularly as undergraduates?
“Undergraduate research is yet another step in maturing as a scholar. Undergraduate research projects, whether or not the student eventually has a STEM career, exposes the scholar to experimental design, actual doing, writing, one-on-one mentoring, and analysis that are not available in the absence of undergraduate research endeavors. It certainly set me on my path and saved me when I had doubts.
“I like to see research incorporated into undergraduate lecture courses in order to encourage what is known as citizen scientists. Everyone can be diligent observers of the world around her/him, gather and interpret data, question hypotheses and look for logic in a report. To be a citizen scientist is a noble calling — and develops better citizens.”
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Now in its 21st year, Student Research Week is a friendly competition that highlights both undergraduate and graduate research at Texas A&M, one of the country’s top research universities. The weeklong celebration fosters an environment for students, faculty and administrators to learn about student research at Texas A&M and also gives students an opportunity to win numerous awards and cash prizes. To learn more about the week’s schedule and specific events, see this feature article or visit http://srw.tamu.edu/.
For more information about research and related excellence, from distinguished faculty to undergraduates, in the College of Science, go to .
To learn more about Darensbourg and her research, see a past feature article or see her and Don Darensbourg’s joint interview for the 2011 Voices of Inorganic Chemistry video series profiling pioneers in the discipline in celebration of the ACS Division of Inorganic Chemistry’s 50th anniversary.
Contact: Shana K. Hutchins, (979) 862-1237 or [email protected]