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Cummins of chemistry wins $500,000 Waterman prize

Professor Christopher C. (Kit) Cummins has received 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. (Gang Tian, the 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.) Awardees receive a research grant of $500,000 over three years. He will accept the award at a ceremony today (May 6) in Washington, DC.

Professor Cummins, 32, whose field is synthetic or exploratory chemistry, uses specially designed compounds of the transition metals to achieve unprecedented chemical transformations. He 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.

He 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, the Arthur Amos Noyes Professor of Chemistry and head of the 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.

"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."

Around the turn of the century, the goal 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 using 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, Professor 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, Professor Cummins found that two of these complexes could gravitate to each end of an N2 molecule and pull it apart.

While nitrogen 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."

Professor 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," Professor Cummins said. He compared the process to an architectural project in which one connects 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.

Professor Cummins first worked on new ligands while an undergraduate at Cornell University. When he completed his PhD in 1993 at MIT with Richard R. Schrock, the 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 1960s, the area has languished in the meantime. Now one of a handful of researchers working in the area, Professor Cummins 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 Professor 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 he 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 Professor 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.

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on May 6, 1998.

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