Dr. David C. Powers, an assistant professor in the Department of Chemistry at Texas A&M University, has been awarded a $1.8 million National Institutes of Health (NIH) Maximizing Investigators’ Research Award (MIRA) to support his group’s research toward metal-free electrocatalysis for fine-chemical synthesis with potential impact on the development of new pharmaceuticals.
The MIRA program was established in 2015 by the National Institute of General Medical Sciences (NIGMS) as a pilot experiment in funding science by better supporting investigators’ overall research programs through a single, unified grant, rather than multiple individual awards. By increasing funding stability, NIH officials hope to improve investigators’ ability to take on ambitious challenges and approach problems creatively while also giving them more flexibility to follow important new research directions as opportunities arise. The overall goal is to increase scientific productivity and improve the odds for important breakthroughs by providing funding that is distributed more widely among the nation’s most promising and highly talented investigators whose time, in turn, is less encumbered by the grant writing and management process.
Drawing from his combined expertise in catalysis, synthesis and reaction mechanisms, Powers is developing novel metal-free catalysis strategies to impact the sustainable synthesis of fine chemicals, such as pharmaceutically active molecules. Many times, the transition metal catalysts that are employed in fine chemical synthesis represent potential toxicity hazards that must be rigorously scrubbed from reaction products prior to use in clinical settings. The development of metal-free strategies for redox catalysis represents a potential opportunity to achieve the same chemical transformations without the need for toxic metal-based catalysts. In addition, electrochemistry has the added benefit that the required electrical bias can be sustainably generated, eliminating the need for chemical oxidants or reductants.
In concept, electrochemical methods could be applied to an enormous variety of organic transformations that require electrons to be added to or removed from substrate. In practice, they aren’t often used primarily due to the slow electron-transfer kinetics characteristic of many organic molecules at electrode surfaces and also because the chemistry that often occurs at electrodes is not typically the chemistry needed for organic synthesis. Electrochemical mediators — small molecules that readily participate in electrochemical reactions at the electrode surface to generate soluble redox carriers — are commonly employed to overcome the slow electron-transfer issue. But while recent progress in synthetic electrocatalysis has demonstrated the utility of various electrochemical mediators, the array of substrate activation mechanisms that are available to these species remain limited. Powers and his research group plan to use the MIRA funding to develop the electrochemistry of hypervalent iodine compounds — a broadly useful class of intermediates in synthetic chemistry — to enable a broad array of substrate activation mechanisms to be achieved electrochemically.
“We are motivated by the possibility that, by deeply understanding the fundamental chemistry involved in electrochemical oxidation of main-group compounds, we will uncover strategies to enable broadly applicable electrocatalytic processes,” Powers said.
Powers joined the Texas A&M Chemistry faculty in 2015 after obtaining his Ph.D. in organic chemistry at Harvard University in 2011 and completing a National Institutes of Health (NIH)/National Research Service Award (NRSA) Postdoctoral Fellowship at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard. In addition to the NIH MIRA grant, his research program is supported by a 2018 Department of Energy Early Career Research Award, a 2019 National Science Foundation CAREER Award and the Welch Foundation. His major honors to date include a 2020 Sloan Fellowship, a 2019 American Chemical Society Academic Young Investigator Award, a 2019 Thieme Chemistry Journals Award and a 2017 Oak Ridge Associated Universities (ORAU) Ralph E. Powe Junior Faculty Enhancement Award. In addition to his research, he has been recognized for his teaching, earning selection as the 2019-20 recipient of the Montague-CTE Scholar Award for the College of Science, an honor given to one tenure-track faculty member in each of Texas A&M’s academic colleges based on their early ability and interest in teaching.
“Based on the extraordinary scope and ambition of his program, it is clear that Dr. Powers is a rising star in chemical catalysis,” said Dr. Simon W. North, professor and head of Texas A&M Chemistry. “His MIRA research proposal advances the forefront of sustainable synthetic chemistry with broad implications for technology, industry and society. I am in awe of the tremendous promise of his work, the ambition and creativity of his ideas, and his remarkable career trajectory thus far at Texas A&M University.”
To learn more about Powers’ research, visit https://www.powerschemistry.com/.
For more information about the MIRA program, go to https://www.nigms.nih.gov/Research/mechanisms/MIRA/Pages/default.aspx.
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Contact: Shana K. Hutchins, (979) 862-1237 or firstname.lastname@example.org or Dr. David C. Powers, (979) 862-3089 or email@example.com