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COMMENT: Robert Waymouth, Chemistry (415) 723-4515
Stanford chemist to receive NSF's 1996 Waterman Award
STANFORD -- The nation's highest award for a promising young scientist will go this year to a Stanford chemist who trains chemical catalysts to do "rope tricks" and in the process has created a new class of rubbery plastics.
Robert Waymouth, 35, associate professor of chemistry, will receive the Alan T. Waterman Award of the National Science Foundation. It includes a $500,000 grant over three years to pursue any line of research. The annual award was established by Congress in 1975 to recognize an outstanding researcher age 35 or younger in any field of science and engineering. At an early stage in their careers, the awardees are recognized for "outstanding capability and exceptional promise for significant future achievement" in their fields.
"It's just remarkable," said Waymouth on hearing of the award. "It's not even something you hope or dream for."
Waymouth graduated summa cum laude from Washington and Lee University in 1982 with dual degrees in mathematics and chemistry. He received his doctorate in 1987 from the California Institute of Technology, and came to Stanford as assistant professor in 1988.
The Waterman Award is named for the late Alan T. Waterman, founding director of the National Science Foundation. His son, Alan T. Waterman Jr., is a professor emeritus of electrical engineering at Stanford.
"This [award] is a recognition of truly spectacular people in science," said John Brauman, chair of the department of chemistry, who nominated Waymouth for the award. "Bob is spectacular, clearly one of the most promising young scientists of his era. In a brief time, he has made major contributions to chemistry that may have a set of very practical applications. His work is intellectually extraordinary and very good science."
Waymouth's honor is based partly on his work discovering new ways to make polymers, long chain molecules that make up substances like polyesters and rubber. In his nomination, Brauman described the research as "[work that] has defined an extremely promising new interdisciplinary area at the interface of organometallic and polymer chemistry. This work is distinguished by creativity in developing new polymerization reactions as well as unusually deep and thoughtful investigations into the mechanisms by which polymers form."
One part of that work has drawn exceptional attention from fellow chemists and from industry. Waymouth has devised a way to make catalysts that change their behavior while they work. A catalyst is a substance that influences a chemical reaction without being changed itself. "It's hard enough to design a catalyst that does one thing very well," Waymouth said, "but we thought we would try to get one to switch between doing two different things."
He and his graduate students tested the idea by making a common, low-cost form of plastic, polypropylene. They made a catalyst that switches back and forth between two shapes at a rate slightly slower than the speed at which each link in the developing polypropylene chain is formed. The reaction knits in a long, thin fiber that is alternately stiff and flexible. "You can see it happen in a beaker," Waymouth said.
The fiber turned out to be an unusual form of polypropylene - in fact, a new family of fibers. Waymouth calls them "thermoplastic elastomers." They are nearly as low cost and as meltable (thus recyclable) as ordinary polypropylene plastic, but they can be as elastic as rubber - and by manipulating the reaction, the scientists can make the fibers as stretchy or as non-elastic as they want.
Waymouth and Stanford have patented the method and licensed it to a major chemical company, Amoco. Under another National Science Foundation grant, Waymouth and his students are working closely with Amoco's scientists as they develop practical applications. One potential idea: activewear made from a fiber that has the wicking properties of polypropylene but is as flexible and soft as silk.
This research is an example of the serendipitous nature of science, Waymouth said. "We weren't trying to do something practical. If I'd been trying just to develop a flexible polypropylene, I would have used a much more conservative approach," he said. "This was such a wild idea that if I'd written a grant proposal about it, I don't think I would have gotten the funding to do it." Instead he used seed money - unrestricted funds from his 1992 National Science Foundation Young Investigator Award.
"After a few trials, we hit on a system that worked. That's what you live for [in science] - and it's rare that it actually happens," he said.
Waymouth said he will use the Waterman Award funds to investigate the properties of the new catalysts and the new family of polymers. "We've discovered them; we know that they work. Now the exciting thing is to find out how the catalysts work, and why the polypropylenes have some of the properties they do.
"It's like moving into a new territory," he said. "You can see endless possibilities ahead. I feel like a kid in a candy store."
Waymouth is the 21st Waterman Award winner, the fourth chemist. He follows Stanford colleagues Richard Scheller, a fellow of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute at Stanford, and neurobiologist Corey Goodman, who moved from Stanford to Berkeley since receiving the award in 1983.
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