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Description of Research Areas

Analytical | Biological | Catalysis | Inorganic | Materials | Organic | Physical | Theoretical

Analytical Chemistry

The Department of Chemistry has an outstanding program in analytical chemistry, ranked among the top analytical programs in the nation. Research in this field is essential to the development of new methods to address various qualitative and quantitative aspects of the biological, forensic, environmental, clinical, and other fundamental and applied sciences. It also provides critical tools for chemical analysis of living cells, biologically active molecules, metabolites, and various materials at trace and ultra-trace levels. As a result, there is great demand for well-educated analytical chemists in industry, academia, and government.


Members of the Chemistry faculty are leaders in several important research areas:

  • fundamental and applied research with mass spectrometry to develop tools for structural biology investigations (Bush)
  • development of new tools that combine ultrasensitive laser-based detection and manipulation methodologies with micro- and nano-fluidic techniques for interfacing with biological systems at the nanometer scale (Chiu)
  • development of novel optical spectroscopy and imaging techniques to investigate the spatial-temporal dynamics of living biological systems at single cell resolution (Fu)
  • comprehensive two-dimensional gas chromatography with time-of-flight mass spectrometry, and other 2D separation techniques aided by chemometrics (Synovec)
  • development of tools to advance medicine, including biomimetic microfluidic systems for integrated cell culture and small molecule isolation, to study chemical mechanisms underlying diseases such as bladder infections, prostate cancer, benign prostatic hyperplasia, and asthma (Theberge)
  • mass spectrometry research with a broad range of interests such as the development of new methods for peptide and protein sequencing, and the development of multiplex strategies for assaying enzymes and proteomics for clinical diagnostics (Tureček)
  • development of new chemical probes and optical instruments for biological imaging (Vaughan)
  • fundamental and applied aspects of electrochemistry and bioanalytical chemistry utilizing nanoscale materials of nanoscale dimensions (Zhang)


In addition to developing fundamental advances in analytical science, new instrumentation, and cutting edge techniques such as those highlighted above, our analytical faculty have numerous collaborative projects with other researchers from across the UW and at universities, national laboratories, and in industry within and outside of the U.S. These multidisciplinary collaborative research projects provide our graduate students with opportunities to work with scientists in fields such as biochemistry, medicinal chemistry, genome sciences, physics, and pediatrics to pursue interesting and important research goals, enhancing their overall educational experience and breadth of research expertise.


Biological Chemistry

The University of Washington is home to one of the largest biomedical research communities in the United States. With biologically-oriented research programs at the University both abundant and outstanding in quality, it comes as no surprise that the Department of Chemistry has a long tradition of strong representation in biomedically-oriented research, with faculty members from the areas of analytical, inorganic, organic, and physical chemistry involved in such studies. Not only are there a large number of biologically-oriented research programs in the Department from which to choose, but collaborations between research groups in Chemistry are common and further contribute to enriching the research experience. There are also numerous ongoing collaborations between researchers in Chemistry and those based in other UW Departments such as Biochemistry, Bioengineering, Biology, Genome Sciences, Medicinal Chemistry, Microbiology, and Pharmacology.

An important area of research in the Department focuses on understanding the mechanistic details of reaction steps, such as C–H, and O–O bond activation, H2O coupling, and H-atom transfer, all fundamental events that are involved in critical biological processes. Spectroscopic methods including EPR, resonance Raman, low-temperature electronic absorption spectroscopy, together with crystallographic methods are used to identify key biosynthetic reactive intermediates.


Another key research area in the Department is the design of low molecular weight compounds that modulate the activity of proteins in cells. Enzyme inhibitors are used to understand the role played by specific enzymes (i.e., protein kinases) in complex cellular processes. Enzyme inhibitors are also an important subset of drugs, and the Department has a number of faculty members who focus on medicinal chemistry, especially in the area of anti-parasitic and anti-cancer agents. Researchers in the Department of Chemistry are involved in the design probes for the visualization of cellular processes in real time and to measure the function of proteins.


There is a strong presence in the Department of research groups using spectroscopic methods to study biological systems. This includes high field solution Nuclear Magnetic Resonance (NMR) and Electron Paramagnetic Resonance (EPR) to study protein and nucleic acid structure and dynamics, multidimensional vibrational spectroscopy to probe how structural heterogeneity at the active site of metalloproteins affects their function, and solid state NMR and Sum Frequency vibrational spectroscopy to probe the properties of biomaterials.


Mass spectrometry is also a core method for several research groups involved in the study of proteins and protein clusters. Enzymes responsible for genetic diseases in children are quantified by electrospray-ionization mass spectrometry to provide medical diagnosis. Other research areas include the use of concepts and experimental tools from physical chemistry and condensed matter physics to study self assembly of amphiphiles, and the development of methods for probing complex biological processes at the single cell and single molecule level including: synaptic transmission and neuronal function and single cell cancer biology.


Catalysis / Synthesis

This area of study broadly encompasses the synthesis of new substances, materials, and molecules for a wide variety of applications, as well as the development of new catalysts to facilitate and accelerate chemical reactivity. The ability to synthesize new compounds at will enables diverse applications across physics, engineering, chemistry, biology, and medicine, such as the detailed study of biological systems, the development of new drugs and systems for drug delivery, new methods for harvesting, storing and transporting light and energy, and more powerful modes of data storage and computing.
Accelerating difficult chemical reactions is a crucial component of any efficient synthesis, and thus research in catalysis goes hand in hand with our desire to synthesize materials. The very heart of research in catalysis is a fundamental understanding of chemical reactivity in all its forms. New catalysts which take advantage of these insights will allow for the more efficient production of all kinds of chemical products. Since the goal of research in synthesis and catalysis is no less than the more efficient manipulation and modification of our environment, it is no surprise that more than half of the faculty in our department are part of this vital research area.


Research in synthesis and catalysis incorporates various aspects of organic, organometallic, inorganic, and physical chemistry. Synthesis forms a substantial component of most programs in this area. Mechanistic investigations are often undertaken to ascertain how an unexpected product is formed or to optimize the performance of a catalytic system. Research in synthesis and catalysis interacts strongly with all of the other research areas in the department, as well as with three of our centers – the Center for Enabling New Technologies through Catalysis, the Center for Nanotechnology, and the Center for Materials and Devices in Information Technology Research.  This high level of interactivity and collaboration brings students into frequent contact with faculty and students in other groups, which leads to learning opportunities for students across a wide range of disciplines.


A variety of experimental tools are used in this research area, including X-ray diffraction, multinuclear NMR, UV/visible, infrared, laser Raman, EPR, and mass spectroscopies, electrochemistry, kinetics, and computer modeling. Students have the opportunity to learn a wide range of techniques on state-of-the art instrumentation. Because synthesis and catalysis are central to the preparation of new materials, students who receive an advanced degree in this area have excellent career prospects.


Projects are underway in a tremendous variety of areas, including synthesis of new drugs for neglected diseases, synthesis and characterization of nanoparticles with new magnetic and optical properties, synthesis of new polymers for drug delivery, synthesis of new polymers with unique electronic and photonic properties, synthesis of small peptides with well-defined shapes, synthesis of molecules to probe signal transduction and enzyme function in biology, synthesis of functional proteins with site-specific chemical modifications, synthesis of biomimetic catalysts, development of catalysts for strong bond activation, development of transition metal and organic catalysts for C-C and C-N bond formation in complex molecules, synthesis of artificial enzyme catalysts, mechanistic investigations of proton-coupled electron transfer, mechanistic investigations of membrane bound enzymes, and studies of the relationships between atomic-level surface structure and nanomaterials performance in energy-related catalysis.


Inorganic Chemistry

The inorganic group is a thriving and energetic group that has been consistently ranked in the top 15 (#11 in 2010) nationally, according to U.S. News and World Report. There are a number of diverse research opportunities involving inorganic chemistry at the University of Washington. Research focuses on the development of new photoactive inorganic materials, solar fuels, doped semiconducting quantum dots for spin-photonics, the design of transition-metal catalysts capable of selectively oxidizing alkanes to alcohols, or promoting other difficult organic transformations such as hydroamination, and the enantioselective carbohydroxylation of alkenes. Groups are involved in the synthesis, spectroscopic and structural characterization of key intermediates (e.g., M-peroxo, M-oxo, M-H, and M-H2) in both biological and industrial reactions, and obtaining mechanistic details regarding fundamental reaction steps such as C–H, O–O, and H–H bond activation, H2O coupling, and H-atom transfer.


Materials, Polymers & Nanoscience

The research groups above design and apply a broad set of tools, including nanostructured and polymeric materials synthesis, self-assembly, microfluidics, chemical sensing, materials characterization, spectroscopy, microscopy, surface chemistry, computational modeling, dynamics simulations, and theory. Relevant length scales span from nano-scale (as in nanoelectronics) to microscopic (as in biological tissues). Some groups design tools to achieve unprecedented spatial resolution, time resolution, or chemical sensitivity.


The range of problems addressed by the researchers is similarly broad, but the following are a few examples:

  • Energy technologies (solar cells, fuel cells, environmental catalysis and photocatalysts)
  • Device design and characterization (photovoltaic devices, light-emitting diodes, photonic and electro-optic devices, magneto-optic/spintronic devices, assessment of solar cell and LED performance, transient molecular configurations on electronic surfaces, and surface/solvent interactions)
  • Biophysical Chemistry (non-invasive probes for biological systems, self-assembly of amphiphiles, light-addressable nanocapsules for biotechnology applications, protein and membrane dynamics, fluorescent nanoparticles for biological imaging, and biosensors)


Many of the research topics in the field of materials, polymers, and nanoscience involve both theoretical and experimental efforts, and several faculty members focus exclusively on theory, modeling, and simulation (Li, Maibaum, Masiello). Some of the recent major theory efforts in the department have included simulations of photocatalytic reaction events, of electro-optic materials’ parameters, of plasmonic materials’ response, and of solar cell properties. New computational methods have been developed for non-adiabatic reaction dynamics and electronic structure determination. Future goals include elucidation of photochemistry in condensed-phase environments, plasmon-enhanced molecular sensing, plasmon-enhanced molecular spectroscopy, nanoscale optics, and dynamics of membrane-protein systems.


Research in materials, polymers, and nanoscience is aided by outstanding departmental user facilities and by University-wide resources such as the Nanotech User Facility, the Microfabrication Facility, the Keck Imaging Center, and the NESAC/BIO surface analysis facility, all of which are staffed by technical experts. Departmental infrastructure of a machine shop, an electronics shop, a chemical stockroom, and, of course, an in-house espresso stand supports our productive research environment.


Our Center for Nanotechnology and Institute for Molecular Engineering and Science offer unique opportunities for interdisciplinary studies with colleagues in other UW departments such as Bioengineering, Materials Science & Engineering, Electrical Engineering, Physics, and the School of Medicine, and offer special educational opportunities such as a Joint PhD Degree in Nanotechnology. Our NSF-funded Center for Enabling New Technologies through Catalysis (CENTC) brings together researchers from across North America to collaboratively address the economic, environmental and national security needs for more efficient, inexpensive and environmentally-friendly methods of producing chemicals and fuels. Our NSF-funded Science and Technology Center for Materials and Devices in Information Technology Research (CMDITR) represents a nation-wide research effort in photonic materials and is headquartered at the UW.


Researchers in the field of materials, polymers, and nanoscience benefit from seminars in nanotechnology, physical chemistry, analytical chemistry, inorganic chemistry, and organic chemistry, which are hosted by the Department of Chemistry. These are complemented by University-wide seminars in related areas such as materials science, condensed-matter physics, and electrical engineering.


Organic Chemistry

Organic chemistry focuses on carbon-rich molecules, which constitute a vast array of substances, owing to the stable nature of multiple configurations of carbon. Most molecules found in nature and molecules that modulate the function of natural compounds are organic compounds.


Organic synthesis plays a prominent role in the research programs of many faculty members. Some develop new reagents including catalysts for the synthesis of organic compounds. Others use established chemical transformations in the process of drug discovery (medicinal chemistry) or to create molecules that bind to proteins and that help us to decipher the function of specific proteins in complex cellular processes or to measure the action of proteins in real time (chemical biology).


Several of the organic chemistry groups in the Department of Chemistry have a significant biochemical/cell biological component. Examples include the use of organic synthesis to make bio-molecules that allow biochemical and biophysical studies of important cellular processes, and the study of signal transduction, protein post-translational modifications, and lipid mediators. Understanding the biochemical processes relevant to the virulence of infectious disease agents such as malaria is also a focus in the Department.


Organic chemistry also forms the foundation for some areas of bioanalytical chemistry, for example the generation of new reagents for proteomic analysis and enzyme assays related to disease detection.


Unnatural organic compounds are being pursued as novel materials especially in the area of photovoltaics. These compounds can be useful in solar energy conversion or in the creation of optical-electronic devices for information technology. Unnatural polymers are being developed as novel drug-delivery devices.


Physical Chemistry

The UW Department of Chemistry is home to a superb physical chemistry program. Physical chemistry research is important for exciting new scientific developments in multi-scale computational modeling, surface chemical reactivity, self-assembly, photochemistry, nanocrystalline quantum dots, non-adiabatic dynamics, photophysics, and much more. Physical chemistry research also provides key insight into application areas such as energy conversion and storage, high-resolution and in vivo bioimaging, optoelectronics, sensing and bioelectronics, catalysis, and numerous others. These factors continue to fuel workforce demand for talented and well-trained physical chemists in the public and private sectors alike.


Campbell: Understanding catalysis nanomaterials in clean energy and environmental applications

Dalton and Robinson: Novel organic electro-optic materials for computation and telecommunication

De Yoreo: Self-assembly and crystallization of biomolecules/biominerals studied by AFM & TEM

Drobny: Solid state NMR of protein-biomineral molecular recognition mechanisms

Dunning: The study of main group chemistry using advanced computational and theoretical methods

Gamelin: Synthesis, spectroscopy, modeling, and applications of nanoscale materials

Ginger: New materials for solar energy, sensing, and photonics; novel microscopy methods

Keller: Study of demixing of lipid membranes in vitro and in vivo, and origin of life

Khalil: Ultrafast spectroscopy of charge transfer, correlated electronic and atomic spectroscopy

Li: Electronic structure theory, calculation, and application to materials and biomolecules

Maibaum: Theory and computational modeling of biological membranes and biomimetic materials

Masiello: Analytical modeling and numerical simulation of plasmonic and nanophotonic materials

McCoy: Theoretical and computational study of vibrational spectroscopy and dynamics

Reid: Single-molecule fluorescence microscopy with applications in materials chemistry

Schlenker: Operando spectroscopy for advanced energy conversion and storage materials and devices

Varani: RNA structure-function and its recognition by proteins and small molecules

Vaughan: Super-resolution fluorescence microscopy and its application to biological questions

Xantheas: Ab-initio calculations of aqueous cluster structure and properties; atmospheric chemistry

The faculty are engaged in a variety of multi-disciplinary activities.  Additional information about activities in Biophysical Chemistry; Energy and Sustainability; Materials and Nanoscience; Spectroscopy can be found below.


Biophysical Chemistry

Physical chemistry, encompassing core the topics of quantum mechanics, statistical mechanics, thermodynamics, and kinetics, offers a powerful set of foundational methods and approaches for the study of biological systems. These include a range of experimental tools including various spectroscopies, mass spectrometry, imaging, etc., as well as computational and theoretical tools which can elucidate structure/organization and dynamics. Faculty in the Department of Chemistry actively use these approaches to understand a range of problems spanning protein structure, enzyme mechanism, ion channel dynamics, the organization of macromolecular complexes, and membrane biophysics, etc. The University of Washington is home to one of the largest biomedical research communities anywhere in the United States, and chemistry faculty collaborate extensively with colleagues in the sciences, engineering, and medicine. More information can be found on individual faculty pages such as those of Bush, Chiu, Drobny, Fu, Keller, Khalil, Maibaum, Stoll, Tureček, Varani, and Vaughan.

Energy and Sustainability
Energy and sustainability are arguably the most important scientific and technological challenges facing society today--and represent an interdisciplinary research front where UW chemists of all backgrounds are playing leading roles. UW faculty, students and postdocs are actively developing materials for low cost hybrid perovskite, organic, and quantum-dot based photovoltaics, solar water splitting and fuels generation, biofuels, energy efficient chemical transformations, efficient catalysts to reduce air pollution, and new materials for energy efficient lighting and computing. UW faculty are involved in multiple research centers exposing students to research across disciplines and institutions. Notable examples are the UW Clean Energy Institute (CEI) and the UW Molecular Engineering and Materials Center (MEM-C). More information can be found on individual faculty pages such as those of Campbell, Gamelin, Ginger, Jenekhe, Li, Masiello, Schlenker, and Spiro


Materials and Nanoscience

The tools and concepts of physical chemistry play an important role in many interdisciplinary projects aimed at developing advanced materials and nanostructures with useful new properties. For example, UW Chemistry faculty are actively working in the areas of plasmonic nanoparticles and metamaterials, colloidal semiconductor quantum dots, nanostructured catalysts, nanostructured solar cells, diluted magnetic semiconductors, organic optoelectronics and photonics, sensing and biodiagnostics, and surface science. These efforts dovetail with several local institutes and centers, including the UW Molecular Engineering Materials Center (an NSF MRSEC), the Molecular Engineering & Sciences Institute, and the UW Clean Energy Institute. More information can be found on individual faculty pages such as those of Campbell, Chiu, De Yoreo, Gamelin, Ginger, Jenekhe, Li, Masiello, and Schlenker.

In addition to using existing spectroscopies, multiple UW research groups are actively developing new spectroscopic methods to study the structure and dynamics of complex systems and improve sensitivity, resolution and applicability in chemistry, biology, and materials science. These research groups are working in the fields of (i) liquid and solid state nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR); (ii) electron paramagnetic resonance (EPR); (iii) ultrafast transient infrared (IR) and Raman; (iv) 2D IR and other multidimensional optical and IR; (v) time-resolved X-ray absorption spectroscopy; and (vi) operando device characterization. Our NMR facilities include spectrometers operating at 800 and 700 MHz that provide great resolution and insight into molecular structure, as well as several machines operating at or below 500 MHz. There are several climate-controlled, ultrafast laser laboratories for performing femtosecond optical and IR experiments. The EPR facility includes a versatile multi-resonance pulse EPR spectrometer operating at X and Q band. More information can be found on the individual faculty pages of Bush, Campbell, Drobny, Ginger, Khalil, Li, Masiello, McCoy, Robinson, Schlenker, Stoll, Tureček, and Varani.

Theoretical Chemistry

Theoretical and computational chemistry plays a central role in research in the chemical sciences by allowing researchers to make connections between the fundamental physical ideas to experimental observables through classical and quantum mechanical approaches.  Theoretical chemistry aims at providing accurate and reliable computational guidance and analysis of experiments, founded on new theory developments that combine innovations in physical chemistry theory with advances in computer software/algorithms and mathematical models.  Numerical simulations based on these theories are applied to systems of ever increasing size, such as biomolecules, quantum fluids, polymers, and nanostructures with hundreds to thousands of atoms and electrons. Scientific applications range from classical and quantum dynamics simulations of molecular reactions, exploring physical underpinnings of biophysical systems, to designing new functional nanomaterials.  A common thread in all of this work is in making connections to experimental measurements. Much of the simulation work is carried out on state-of-the-art parallel computer clusters. Computer facilities, including an extensive collection of modern software for theoretical chemistry calculations and mathematical analysis, are available to all graduate students for coursework and research. The University maintains the Hyak Cluster  and students can take advantage of nodes through the department, the HPC club, and a recently awarded MRI grant from the National Science Foundation.  The theory groups at the University of Washington also take advantage of national computational resources as well as internally maintained workstations. Computational and theoretical chemistry are the focus in the research groups of Dunning, Li, Maibaum, Masiello, McCoy, and Xantheas, and also serves as a major research component in many experimental groups, including those of Bush, Campbell, Khalil, Robinson, Stoll, and Tureček.





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