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Tuesday, July 7, 2020

Academics & Research

UH chemists win Sloan Research Fellowship award


Assistant professors of chemistry Jakoah Brgoch (left) and Judy Wu were named 2020 Sloan Research fellows. | Courtesy of UH

Assistant professors of chemistry Jakoah Brgoch (left) and Judy Wu were named 2020 Sloan Research fellows. | Courtesy of UH

Two University chemists received the Sloan Research Fellowship, granting them recognition as some of the most promising scientists in North America, opening the doors for discoveries yet to be made.

Jakoah Brgoch, an assistant professor of chemistry, uses data science and computational modeling to reduce the experimental effort needed to discover new ways to produce energy-related materials. One of his projects at the University is about making LED light bulbs more cost-effective and efficient.

Assistant professor of chemistry Judy Wu also received this recognition who uses computational organic chemistry to study fundamental concepts such as reactivity, and how molecules associate makes for bigger assemblies by using computer simulations to imitate reactions.

“We’re showing that these very basic textbook concepts have a lot of consequences for supramolecular chemistry,” Wu said. “Outlining that bridge, I think, is the surprise element of our research.” 

The work they’ve done is unique by experimenting with concepts that are generally accepted by the scientific community as understood, irrelevant, or impossible, Brgoch said.

Wu said the projects have an additional risk factor if they don’t succeed: their peers will write them off for studying a concept that people are forgetting about.

“If you stay without asking questions, the field is dead,” Wu said, “but if you ask new questions then there’s a lot of opportunities.”

The assistant professors were surprised when they were awarded the Sloan Fellowship. Out of the 126 recipients, 23 designated under chemistry, the University is among the top universities in the country, with only one other university receiving more than one award for achievements in chemistry.

Wu said the honor “means that in your field you are recognized as the next superstar” and that they will get continued support from the community they serve to continue your work.

The department of chemistry is also deserving of recognition for the support they lent in helping professors reach their goals with every project they conducted, Wu said.

“The protection we get from our senior colleagues from doing other administrative things really allowed us to focus on our own research,” Wu said.

Brgoch believes this assistance allows the junior staff to grow and excel in their work by relieving the burdens and time-consuming tasks that take away from teaching and research.

“I don’t know if there are other places that do it as well as they do here,” Brgoch said

Brgoch and Wu believe the Sloan Fellowship is motivation to embark on new projects that are even higher risk and higher reward than previously ventured. Getting the award motivated Wu in an era where many scientists are more focused on the applications than the actual work and showed her that fundamental research is still valued to continue to do something fundamental but high risk.

“If we take a risk and it fails so what, let’s see what we can try,” Wu said. 

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