The Color of Chemistry

NSF post-doctoral chemistry fellowship a rarity for special field

10/15/2009 - By: John Trent
Felts_and_Lill Todd Felts, assistant journalism professor, and Dan de Lill, a university post-doctoral chemistry researcher, are collaborating on de Lill's NSF Chemistry Fellowship studying the photophysical properties of organic compounds. Photo by Jean Dixon

The science that Dan de Lill does is not far removed from his own personality.

In fact, in many ways, the two seem as tightly bonded as the brilliant photophysical properties de Lill creates as a post-doctoral chemistry researcher at the University.

Consider de Lill’s own words in describing his work:

“We work with a series of metals called lanthanide ions,” says de Lill, an exceedingly polite chemist whose carefully chosen words are freighted with a clearness and certainty that only the best educators seem to possess. “If we take one of these ions, for example, an ion called Europium, and we find the right way to excite it, it will luminescence in red.”

De Lill pauses for a moment. The whole process he is describing, easily understood if you are a talented young chemist, still contains an element of wonder that deserves reflection. With all of the intricate science involved in stimulating the different colors of the different ions, with huge implications and applications for the future of say, telecommunications or biomedical imaging, it is still a bit amazing to see such extraordinary color appear in such colorless and seemingly lifeless solutions.

Although the work that de Lill does really isn’t magic, it sure seems like it. It’s a bit like the life cycle and those beautiful moments where our trees in the fall begin to blush oranges or brown and we wonder, simply, “Why? How?”

“It is very pretty, the chemistry that we are doing,” he adds with a smile, noting the many byproducts and benefits of doing work that one loves.

Over the summer, de Lill, who is a post-doctoral researcher in the Department of Chemistry, discovered that the world of science had taken note of his work. He learned that he was the recipient of a prestigious two-year, $200,000 post-doctoral National Science Fellowship.

AN UNHEARD OF ACHIEVEMENT

In the field of chemical sciences, such an award is practically unheard of, according to Ana de Bettencourt-Dias, associate professor of inorganic and material chemistry and de Lill’s post-doctoral adviser.

“The NSF has several post-doctoral fellowships in graduate programs; however, they aren’t usually in the chemical sciences,” says de Bettencourt-Dias, whose national reputation and spectroscopy laboratory were among the magnets that brought de Lill to campus. “Every once in a while the NSF will open the call to these things in chemistry, but not very often. That makes the actual award very unique, very rare.  It’s prestigious for Dan, and for all of us – me, the department and the whole University – because there are not many of these around.”

Just as an example of how rare, de Bettencourt-Dias said her own post-doctoral adviser from UC-Davis noted that in his experience, there hadn’t been an inorganic or materials chemistry post-doctoral student in his department who had ever received such an honor.

De Lill and de Bettencourt-Dias’ work is part of what de Bettencourt-Dias described as a “niche” area in chemistry, one that is relatively new, but evolving quickly.

De Lill synthesizes organic compounds – called ligands – that are attached to ions. When the compounds are excited, energy is transferred, which in turn causes the metal ion to emit light. De Lill not only creates different colors, he determines how efficient the compounds are in letting off light and how long the light lasts. The photophysical properties that are studied could one day lead to a new “green” generation of light bulbs, or computer screens, or biomedical imaging.

“The spectroscopy is just amazing,” de Lill says. “These materials are very unique in their spectroscopic properties. They’re unlike any of the other elements of the periodic table, and that’s why they are used so frequently in display technologies. A lot of people don’t appreciate them the way we do. They’re very underappreciated among most chemists, so you hold them very dear to your heart.”

Good-naturedly, de Bettencourt-Dias adds, “We are part of a very small chemistry community in the world compared to others … so this makes us kind of ‘nerds.’ It’s special, because there is a very special spectroscopy component that we study. We’re kind of unique that way.”

UNIQUE NOT ONLY TO CHEMISTRY

Todd Felts knows a little bit about being unique. Not yet 40, he’s already been a speechwriter and press secretary to one of the America’s most successful governors – Gov. Jim Hunt of North Carolina – served as director of community relations for the World Summer Special Olympics and as a director for a national strategic communications firm with a client list chock full of Fortune 500 companies.

He’s a high-energy sort who perpetually thinks and talks 75 mph in a 50 mph world. His words come in agreeable and intelligent bursts, like Kodachrome-sharp snapshots. Unlike many of us, who live far too one-dimensionally, Felts has the ability to see the world from the hovering vantage point of a hot air balloon … or from a tightly cropped, intimate close-up – the kind of informal, yet informational viewpoint that is the centerpiece of the world’s exploding reliance on social media.

Now starting his second full year as an assistant professor in the Reynolds School of Journalism, Felts is primed to play a key role in the ultimate success of de Lill’s NSF fellowship. Starting this semester, Felts’ Advanced Public Relations class in the Reynolds School is building an integrated communications plan for de Lill’s work.

The idea is to broaden the audience for de Lill’s work by making it more accessible through the use of interactive media. All NSF grants have an outreach component, and de Lill’s could be one of the first in the country to attempt to present his research to an increasingly savvy teen generation through one of their favorite and most used platforms – social media.

“Daniel’s project is pretty significant, particularly when you consider that some of it is aimed at creating things like creating ‘green’ light bulbs that would use much less energy,” says Felts, who is also director of graduate studies in interactive journalism for the Reynolds School. “If you look at how much energy a fluorescent bulb takes when you’re lighting up a Wal-Mart, the things that he is doing could be considered pretty revolutionary.

“So we’re looking at this project from multiple approaches. This could lead to new jobs in the ‘green collar’ realm, which would be great for Nevada. The second fold is that we want to create a model in Nevada that can be re-created in other states. The Reynolds High School Journalism Association (created by Dean Jerry Ceppos about a year ago), already exists, so we’re going to reach out to the communities that are part of the association and use that as a model. If you look at this target audience, you’ll see that they are very social media focused, so that’s one of the ways we will present Daniel’s information to them.”

De Lill, who is always quick to credit those who have mentored or encouraged him, said the success of his submission for his NSF grant is due in no small part to Felts’ vision.

“Professor Felts really believes in social networks, and he also believes in sustainable journalism – green economy journalism,” de Lill says. “A lot of this type of chemistry work is definitely related to the green economy. This type of research creates greener lighting systems and technologies, better telecommunication materials. This is green chemistry – a way of trying to make the world a greener and better place.

“It’s going to be exciting. We are going to work on creating a curriculum as well as novel ways of bringing the information to the Reno high school system. We’re going to create videos that will be posted on social networking sites such as YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter. We’ll be trying to use social media as well. And … one of the other goals of this project is the hope that we’ll be stimulating some of Professor Felts’ students to go into scientific journalism. We need more science writers. For many scientists, that’s our main way of getting our information to the public.”

For his own part, de Lill says he has used Facebook and MySpace to stay connected with his friends from college.

“It will be an awesome way for us to get the word out there,” he says. “We’ll be able to ‘Tweet’ people to say, “Hey, guess what? We’ve just uploaded this chemistry video on YouTube. Check it out.’ Todd’s enthusiasm will really help push this forward. He’s going to get his students excited about the work, and then they’ll come up with some great, creative ideas – things that a chemist could never dream of.”

Felts says that in many ways, social media is the perfect delivery system for scientific information.

“It’s a very exciting time for journalism,” he says, with characteristic enthusiasm. “We’re re-creating the journalistic model. It’s become the story of the century; you used to be able to take a single idea and share it with the masses. Today we are in this sort of role where we take a single idea and we share it with a single person … because of social media. And working with the Chemistry Department will only give us more ammunition as we go out and try to create more innovation around journalism.”

FROM HUMBLE BEGINNINGS

For all of his excitement about the project, however, Felts reserves his greatest praise for de Lill.

“He’s just an incredible person, with an incredible story,” Felts says. “He’s not only this tremendously talented young chemistry researcher. Daniel has information, experiences and cultural sensitivity that you don’t find in just anybody. He’s a person who has grown up in a smaller place, who’s had to struggle on his own to make it, and because of that fact, he’s become very aware of the world around him.”

De Lill does have a special, empathetic perspective. How many chemistry researchers, for example, have a dual undergraduate major in both Chemistry … and French? De Lill’s background is firmly entrenched in the working-class region of north central Pennsylvania, where his father is a truck driver and his mother has been a factory worker.

“I grew up in trailer park, living with my mom, my step-dad, and two brothers,” he says. “From there, I was the only one who went to college. College (at Lock Haven University in Lock Haven, Penn.) was very expensive for me. It was tough the first couple of years. For freshmen and sophomores, there isn’t a whole lot of financial aid out there. The last couple of years, though, were fine, as was graduate school (at George Washington University in Washington, D.C.).”

Says de Bettencourt-Dias: “Dan has a background where no one would have thought he would have received a higher degree. Yet he managed to make it through, not knowing what to expect, not having the financial background, not having had other family members who had gone to college.

“His life has been a great success story, and that makes (the NSF fellowship) all the more reason that this is an amazing, amazing accomplishment.”

De Lill hopes to one day become a fulltime professor, and, like his mentor de Bettencourt-Dias, to have his own research group.

“When I went to graduate school, my initial plan was to work at a small four-year college, but as I’ve progressed, I really want to make these new materials with all of these great, exciting applications for energy and the environment, so I realized I wanted to stay in research,” he says. “So hopefully in five to 10 years, I’ll have my own research group, my own grad students and post-docs, and hopefully I’ll be getting work out there.”

Like the colorful compounds that he works with, de Lill cannot seem to separate the beauty from the science, the deep-seated, abiding passion from the long, difficult hours of research.

And maybe that’s not necessarily a bad thing … to have his life and his life’s work so inextricably bonded.

“My goal,” he says, “and I’m not afraid to tell people this, is to save the world, to make that one great discovery that will change and save the world. And as I’ve found out with the research I’ve been doing, discovery in and of itself can be a pretty exciting thing, too.”


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