Chemistry brews another NSF CAREER winner

2/7/2007 8:00:00 AM

Brian Frost admits that his first reaction was a mixture of surprise and disbelief when he learned recently he was the latest member of the College of Science's Department of Chemistry to receive the National Science Foundation's prestigious CAREER award.

"My first reaction was, "Really, are you sure?'" said Frost, an assistant professor of chemistry at Nevada since 2002. "I was very ecstatic, and I also felt a lot of relief."

Earning a CAREER award from NSF is not easy. The highly competitive award that is a defining national milestone in the career of young scientists usually is awarded to only about 20 percent of all applicants across the country, according to Kent Ervin, chair of the Department of Chemistry.

Interestingly, though, Chemistry has a notable track record in producing young, talented, nationally recognized faculty. Frost's award—$578,500 over five years—is the fifth time in the past decade that a member of the department has earned the CAREER award.

The department's other winners include: Vincent J. Catalano in 1996 (the first Chemistry professor in Nevada in any field to receive the honor); Suk-Wah Tam-Chang, 1999; Sean M. Casey, 2001; Benjamin King, 2005.

"Our new faculty members have done extraordinarily well in obtaining these prestigious grants, which were first given in 1995," Ervin said. "The CAREER Awards emphasize the connection between excellence in research and excellence in teaching, requiring both a scientific proposal and an innovative educational plan.

"Both areas are priorities for the department."

For Frost, 33, the award is an important step toward attaining tenure. But beyond that, he said, the funding will provide an equally important opportunity for him to further his research and teaching in the field of aqueous phase catalysis. Frost has a number of research projects centered around "green" chemistry.

He is hopeful that his CAREER-funded project will provide scientifically fundamental and industrially relevant advances in the field of aqueous-phase catalysis. This understanding in how water affects catalytic reactions could help develop technologies to limit hazardous waste streams. In addition, there is an interesting community and statewide component that will look to improve K through 12 education in Nevada. Washoe County School District teachers will be provided with support for improving science teaching through teacher workshops developed as part of the NSF-supported research.

That's a lot for any professor. But Frost, a graduate of Elizabethtown (Penn.) College and earned his Ph.D. from Texas A&M, believes the work—all of it, from the research to teaching to outreach—is well worth it.

"When you talk about sustainable economic growth in the U.S., it will probably only be possible through using chemical technologies that are catalytic, limit waste and are ecologically friendly," Frost explained. "What we're researching are ways to help transition traditional industrial chemistry into a more environmentally friendly and cost-effective process. An improved understanding of how water affects catalytic reactions is an important part of this."

Frost further explained that upon changing a solvent from something like benzene into water, more research is needed to understand "what water brings to the table" in such a chemical reaction.

Although he's a "green chemist" in the sense that he is looking to lessen the impact of hazardous chemicals, Frost said he doesn't believe there are "bad" versus "good" chemicals.

"I get a little irritated with the media who have led the public to believe that all chemicals are "bad,'" he said. "This is a ridiculous statement; everything is made of chemicals. I try to convince my students to bring rational thought towards their chemistry and life in general.

"Environmental chemistry is important as our society moves forward, but labeling all chemicals as 'bad' is counterproductive."

In a short period of time, Frost has found the Department of Chemistry to be a good home.

"We have an excellent department, with a nice, broad range of people," he said, noting that the younger faculty, though notable in its achievement, is fully aware that the more veteran members of the faculty have also accomplished much. The talent covers all areas, from Suk-Wah Tam-Chang's Alan Bible Award for Excellence in Teaching to Joseph Cline's Regents Academic Advising Award to previous University Outstanding Researcher award winners such as David Lightner and Foundation Professors such as Robert Sheridan.

"There have been five of us hired in the last five years, and that, along with the people who have the strong institutional memory of our department and our university, makes for a nice mix. I really like it here. When I came here (to interview), I really did fall in love with the place. I ski, I snowboard, I hike. The quality of life of this place is amazing."

Adding to that quality, of course, is quality awards, won by quality faculty.

"Considering how rigorous the process was, it was a nice stress relief for me," said Frost, who oversees the research of seven graduate and undergraduate students and one post-doctoral research associate. "Now my figurative ulcer can go away ... at least for a while."


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