Chemistry professor awarded prestigious Sloan Fellowship

2/23/2009 - By: John Trent

The last few years have been a time of great accomplishment for Liming Zhang, a fast-rising assistant professor in the chemistry department in the University of Nevada, Reno’s College of Science.

Less than a year after Zhang learned that he had received a $500,000 National Science Foundation (NSF) CAREER Award – a defining milestone in the career of young scientists throughout the country – the 37-year-old Zhang was informed on Feb. 17 that he has been named an Alfred P. Sloan Research Fellow.

The two-year Sloan Fellowship, which is $50,000 and is awarded by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation of New York, is designed to support the work of exceptional young researchers early in their academic careers and often at pivotal stages in their work.

Zhang is among 118 faculty members at 61 of the nation’s finest colleges and universities who are conducting important research in new areas of physics, chemistry, computational and evolutionary molecular biology, computer science, economics, mathematics and neuroscience.

Zhang is one of 21 young chemistry professors to earn a Sloan Fellowship this year, with winners coming from institutions such as Harvard, California-Berkeley and MIT.

“This is a great honor, and I’m especially proud to be able to represent our university,” Zhang said. “This honor shows that we do have the facilities and capacity to do the kind of science that people will be able to pay attention to.

“I would really like to thank my colleagues and co-workers in the Department of Chemistry, as well as my students. Without such great students and postdoctoral research associates, an accomplishment like this wouldn’t be possible.”

Added College of Science Dean Jeff Thompson: “Dr. Zhang’s Sloan Fellowship is a fantastic acknowledgement of his research activities and also a recognition of his potential as a scientist. Liming is a wonderful young faculty member and excellent university citizen. He exemplifies the creativity and resourcefulness of our young faculty.”

Zhang was particularly thankful to veteran Chemistry Department professor Robert Sheridan, who nominated his young colleague for the honor.

“I really do have to thank Professor Robert Sheridan,” Zhang said. Sheridan, along with several of Zhang’s former mentors, developed letters of recommendation that praised Zhang for his ability to conduct cutting-edge research in the field of catalysis. “They must’ve written some very nice recommendation letters,” Zhang said with a smile.

Zhang is involved in a relatively new field of research that looks at common commodities such as gold or platinum and, using their complexes as catalysts, attempts to develop new and efficient bond-formation processes. These novel chemical transformations have great potential for the future development of pharmaceutical products, and in helping creating a new generation of pharmaceuticals that would be cost-efficient and environmentally friendly.

Zhang’s research, as his recent honors can attest, has caught the attention of the country’s scientific community. He has published a total of 21 peer-reviewed paper in less than four years, including 13 in the top chemistry journals. In addition to the Sloan Fellowship and his NSF CAREER award, Zhang is also a 2008 recipient of an Amgen Young Investigator’s Award and the Mousel-Feltner Award for Excellence in Research and/or Creative Activity. Amgen is a Fortune 500 pharmaceutical company in Thousand Oaks, Calif., and the Mousel-Feltner Award is given to an outstanding researcher in the Colleges of Arts and Science based on annul performance.

“(The Sloan Fellowship) is a great thing because it attracts people’s attention,” he said of the value of his most recent honor. “The Sloan Foundation is helping to promote science and they are putting money into research essentially without any string attached, , which can really help a young researcher. It certainly makes me feel that I want to do more.”

Zhang said he hopes to use the Sloan support to hire more student researchers for his laboratory. At the moment, his laboratory supports two post-doctoral associates and two graduate students.

Zhang, who is soft-spoken, also possesses a nimble sense of humor, and often issues a sweet smile as he talks of his students.

“I don’t know if my students will be excited about this or not,” he said, with a grin. “I suppose it could mean more work for them.” Then he added, seriously, “They deserve as much of this recognition as anyone. I have a really great group of students.”

Even if his students have yet to say anything about their professor’s latest accolade, word has slowly been spreading. The names of the winners were published last week in The New York Times.
Zhang has received congratulations from his colleagues and more than a few emails commending him.

University President Milton Glick, himself a former college chemistry professor, was one of the well-wishers, writing, “Liming, congratulations on being named a Sloan Fellow. This is highly competitive and gives you an opportunity to pursue your research. We are proud to have you on our staff. “

“Certainly, I enjoy my work and (awards) are a lot fun when you receive the news,” Zhang said. “It’s really encouraging when one of your studies is cited by another researcher, or when you get an email saying ‘nice work.’

“I really enjoy what I do. The drive for me is to see more chemistry coming out, and each day getting useful and interesting things done.”

Useful and interesting things that seem to invariably to one place: much-deserved honors and awards.


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