Northrop Awarded Prestigious NSF CAREER Award

Brian Northrop

Brian Northrop

This month, the National Science Foundation awarded Brian Northrop, assistant professor of chemistry, with a 2014 Faculty Early Career Development (CAREER) award.

The CAREER awards support junior faculty who exemplify the role of teacher-scholars through outstanding research, excellent education and the integration of education and research within the context of the mission of their organizations.

The honor came with a five-year grant totaling $537,561, which Northrop will use on his study titled “Selective Thiol-Ene and Thiol-Yne Chemistry, From First Principles to Organic Materials.”

At Wesleyan, Northrop’s research focuses on the design, synthesis and analysis of new organic materials utilizing molecular recognition and self-assembly, and “click” chemistry. With the CAREER Award, Northrop and his students will continue to investigate new methods for making polymers and nanoscale assemblies.

“Synthetic polymers form the basis of many of the materials we encounter every day, from plastics and adhesives to medical equipment and electronics,” Northrop explained. “One of the primary goals of contemporary polymer synthesis is to be able to fine-tune the physical properties of polymers by exhibiting precise control over their chemical structure. By developing methods that allow such precise control, researchers are able to directly influence whether a given polymer is stiff or flexible, fragile or resilient, insulating or conductive, etc.”

Much of the research in Northrop’s lab focuses on developing a thorough, fundamental understanding of how compounds known as thiols react with alkenes and alkynes. These so-called “thiol-ene” and “thiol-yne” reactions are some of the most efficient methods for synthesizing a wide range of polymer materials. While thiols react rapidly and efficiently with alkenes and alkynes, there are currently very few methods for selectively reacting a thiol with one alkene or one alkyne in the presence of another. Northrop and his students are working to address this problem and have already developed two new methods of achieving selective thiol-ene and thiol-yne reactions.

“Expanding the scope of these selective thiol-ene and thiol-yne reactions will provide a variety of efficient methods for synthesizing complex, multifunctional polymer materials that are otherwise inaccessible by current techniques,” he said.

Northrop and his students are now using their new methods to prepare polymers that can be used as force-sensitive materials that change color when under stress, as impact-resistant protective coatings, and as drug delivery vehicles for the controlled release of pharmaceuticals. This research complements other ongoing projects in the Northrop lab that involve the spontaneous self-assembly of nanoporous materials built from compounds known as boronic acids.

“I’m very grateful to have received a CAREER award,” Northrop said. “This generous support from the NSF is going to help provide significant resources for my students and I to expand our research efforts. The grant also provides support for me to strengthen educational initiatives I’ve started here at Wesleyan and in the greater Middletown area.”

Northrop has recently developed several new courses in materials science, including a lab course in nanomaterials where upper-level undergraduates learn about and then synthesize exotic materials such as quantum dots, plasmonic nanoparticles, organic light-emitting diodes, and dye-sensitized solar cells. With the CAREER award Northrop will be able to greatly enhance this course with more advanced materials and instrumentation. Northrop has also partnered with the Green Street Arts Center and created a hands-on workshop for 6-8th grade students to learn about polymer science. This and other workshops will also benefit from the support of Northrop’s CAREER award.