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MIT professor wins prestigious young researcher award for innovative chemistry

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. --Christopher C. (Kit) Cummins, Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor of chemistry, is the recipient of the 1998 National Science Foundation (NSF) Alan T. Waterman Prize, given annually by the NSF and National Science Board to an outstanding young researcher in a field funded by the NSF.

Professor Cummins is the first MIT recipient in the history of the prize, which is given for research of high quality, innovation and potential for discovery. Awardees receive a research grant of $500,000 over three years. He will accept the award at a ceremony May 6 in Washington, D.C.

Cummins, 32, whose field is synthetic or exploratory chemistry, uses specially designed compounds of the transition metals to achieve unprecedented chemical transformations. Cummins has created an unusual new molecule that may lead to using the nitrogen abundant in the atmosphere to make cheaper pharmaceuticals, fertilizers and polymers like nylon.

Cummins said he was "very surprised" to hear he was chosen for the prestigious Waterman prize. "This is a very exciting year for me," said Cummins, who also received the American Chemical Society's 1998 Award in Pure Chemistry in March.

"Kit Cummins is a brilliant synthetic chemist whose work has created new paradigms and inspired many to rethink conventional wisdom," said Stephen J. Lippard, Arthur Amos Noyes Professor of Chemistry and head of the MIT chemistry department. "His work in synthetic chemistry beautifully exemplifies what attracts many of us to this field of science, namely, the ability to be creative in an artistic as well as an analytical manner.

"Like the artist, the synthetic chemist can prepare molecules or achieve transformations never seen before, to his or her own delight as well as, ultimately, that of the whole community. It is in part for this reason that Kit's achievements have been so well-received. It has been a delight to have him as a colleague in the department, which he enriches through his research, teaching, service and unbridled enthusiasm. He is very deserving of the Waterman award and brings great distinction to that prize."

"Kit is the second member of our faculty and the first to come up through the junior faculty ranks to receive the Waterman award," said Robert J. Birgeneau, dean of the School of Science. "Needless to say, we are all very proud of Kit and we take great pleasure in his success. Kit is one of a number of truly outstanding young faculty here at MIT. These faculty are collectively possibly the best we have ever had at MIT and they guarantee our excellence well into the next millennium."

Gang Tian, Simons Professor of Mathematics at MIT, received the Waterman award in 1994 when he was affiliated with the Courant Institute of Mathematical Sciences at New York University.

Around the turn of the century, the goal of many chemists was to get very stable nitrogen, an inert gas, to react with other chemicals that will pull it into nitrogen-containing compounds that perform useful functions.

In 1918, German scientist Fritz Haber won the Nobel Prize for coming up with a way to split a nitrogen molecule with brute force. This process, still used today, takes hundreds of degrees and huge amounts of pressure to burst apart the extremely strong triple bond between the two atoms in N2. It allows the manufacture of nitrogen-containing products such as certain drugs, plastics, fertilizers and ammonia.

In contrast, Cummins "tricked" a nitrogen gas molecule into splitting at room temperature and under normal pressure. Carefully chosen ligands--molecules or ions that surround a metal ion in a "complex"--turned out to be the key, as well as the metal elements. The challenge is to find the appropriate ligand to store energy in a molecule, then release the energy with bond-forming or bond-breaking reactions of a new and different kind.

By creating a molybdenum complex with three ligands attached to the central metal atom, Cummins found that two of these complexes could gravitate to each end of an N2 molecule and pull it apart.

Cummins first worked on new ligands while an undergraduate at Cornell University. He had been wracking his brain to come up with one that would be good for the stability of three-coordinate molybdenum and "this is the solution that occurred to me. No one ever used these ligands before. The new ligands, called N-t-butyl anilides, fulfilled criteria that others had overlooked," he said.

While nitrogen, normally an inert gas, is known to bond with metals such as molybdenum, "our compound not only bound nitrogen, but also split the N2 triple bond. It was a step forward in nitrogen chemistry and an unprecedented reaction in homogenuous solution."

Cummins and his colleagues conceive of new molecules by interchanging molecular elements, like switching a red sphere for a blue cube in a set of Tinker Toys. They hypothesize about what might happen if they put a metal molecule where a carbon one exists in a certain compound. The ultimate test is to synthesize the new substance in the lab.

"We look at what's not there and see if we can make it. Some of the things we try to make are called Holy Grails because people think about them for a long time and try to create them without much success," Cummins said. He compares the process to an architectural project in which you're connecting three-dimensional objects that never co-existed before. Every once in a while, someone comes up with a new system that succeeds where others failed.

Cummins originally thought he would follow in his grandfather's footsteps and become a medical doctor, but unlike many premeds who quail at the required organic chemistry class, Cummins became "completely enthralled" by chemistry in college. He said the field's unique organizational framework and language "came very naturally to me. I loved it."

When Cummins completed his PhD in 1993 at MIT with Richard R. Schrock, Frederick G. Keyes Professor of Chemistry, he continued to explore small-molecule chemical reactions. Although working with low-coordinate transition elements came briefly into vogue in the '60s, the area has languished in the meantime. Cummins, now one of a handful of researchers working in the area, hopes he can help revive the field with his latest discoveries.

"My objective is to synthesize interesting new molecules and use them to bring to light definitive examples of new reactions that expand our chemical toolbox," he said. "We bring new things into existence to test our ideas and because we find it appealing intellectually."

While there are infinite variations, researchers are limited by what they can achieve via synthesis. The compounds Cummins recently worked with, for instance, deteriorate by reacting with oxygen and water so they must be handled in carefully controlled environments, with inert atmospheres, devoid of oxygen or water. "It's like working in our own little universe," he said.

While Cummins acknowledges that his nitrogen-splitting creation has potential applications, he is largely content to leave that path to others. "We're the explorers and the discoverers, not necessarily the exploiters," said Cummins, who is now working on making low-coordinate compounds of phosphorus and uranium. "For me, the fun part is being there when something is put together for the first time."

The Waterman Award was created by Congress in 1975 to mark the 25th anniversary of the NSF and honor its first director, Alan T. Waterman, a recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom, who was first appointed NSF director by President Truman in 1951, reappointed in 1957 by President Eisenhower and continued to serve until 1963 at the request of President Kennedy.

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