Chemistry grant gives Whited room to ‘see where the science leads us’

5 April 2016

Receiving a research grant is always cause for celebration. But it might be awhile before Matt Whited stops beaming over his recent award from the National Science Foundation.

Five years, to be exact—which is how long the $400,000 CAREER grant covers his ambitious project, “Cooperative Small-Molecule by Ambiphilic Pincer-Type Complexes Featuring Metal/Main-Group Bonds.”

Most of the money will go toward student stipends for undergraduate researchers—as many as 23 over the next five summers, says Whited, an assistant professor of chemistry. Perhaps more significant in the short term: the financial windfall gives Whited space to explore.

“I don’t want to say it’s relief, but it definitely feels that way because of the big goals that I have. For what I want students to do in the lab, the kind of projects that I want to pursue, you have to have a significant funding base to hire students to do the work,” Whited says.

“It’s why being funded at this level over a five-year period is particularly meaningful. It lets me think beyond the whole trap of, ‘Yeah, I know we can get great results, but oh, we have to start getting them right away.’ It allows us to get totally absorbed in the science, which is how many of our most exciting findings originate.”

Also meaningful: That the NSF gave its significant stamp of approval to the groundwork laid by Carls who’ve worked on chemical synthesis and reaction discovery since Whited’s arrival in 2011. The goal is to develop new approaches to difficult chemical transformations and extend those reactions to earth-abundant and sustainable metal catalysts, Whited says.

The CAREER grant is the NSF’s premier award for junior faculty. In this last funding cycle, Carleton was one of four peer colleges to receive a CAREER grant (St. Olaf, Franklin & Marshall, Smith). The NSF has issued an average of 560 CAREER awards per year over the past three cycles.

Awards also are not categorized by enrollment size or whether projects use undergraduate or graduate students for research, which can often put liberal arts schools at a competitive disadvantage.

“That’s the terrifying part about it. You’re thrown into a pool with people who teach much less and have graduate students working in the lab,” Whited says.

“So it’s definitely a high bar to reach for undergrad institutions. The NSF really wants to see a significant record of research and publication before you put in your application. It’s why we’re proud of the fact that Carleton has a reputation, nationally and internationally, as a place that produces both excellent students and excellent science.”

Whited is thrilled that the money will allow more Carls to carve a similar path through lab-intensive learning. As part of the CAREER program’s social impact mandate, Whited also plans to expand an existing outreach effort to introduce Northfield and Faribault high school students, particularly from low-income backgrounds, to lab work.

“Now we have a research project where we can dabble. See where the science leads us,” Whited says. “To me, that’s really exciting, and it’s a little bit like how I started at Carleton. I came in my first year and got some money from the institution. The expectation was to set up a research program and put forth some big ideas, but beyond that, it was an open playing field for creating new knowledge. So here we go again, let’s see what works.”