Chemistry Prof. Cooks and Wetherill Laboratory earn national honors

Prof. R. Graham Cooks

The Camille and Henry Dreyfus Foundation has announced that R. Graham Cooks, the Henry Bohn Hass Distinguished Professor of Chemistry at Purdue University, is the recipient of the 2013 Dreyfus Prize in the Chemical Sciences, conferred this year in chemical instrumentation. The international prize, awarded biennially, consists of $250,000, a citation, and a medal. The award ceremony will be held at Purdue University in the fall and will feature a lecture by Professor Cooks.

Cooks is recognized internationally as an innovative giant in the field of mass spectrometry who has enriched analytical chemistry in unparalleled ways. Virtually every pharmaceutical and biotechnology company relies on mass spectrometry at a level that has become possible, in part, through Cooks’ innovations.

Mass spectrometry is the science of accurately determining the masses of molecules in a sample from which we can learn the elemental composition of each constituent molecule. Cooks advanced this analytical capability with the introduction of tandem mass spectrometry in which selected ions generated from complex mixtures are further fragmented and the masses of the fragment ions determined. By putting together these pieces of a jigsaw puzzle, a picture emerges of the molecular structure of the parent ion. Cooks has also made groundbreaking advances in ambient desorption/ionization in which ions from a sample at room-temperature in air are introduced into the mass spectrometer for analysis, removing many of the difficulties associated with sample preparation and volatilization in previous, complex mass spectrometric techniques.   

In a remarkable accomplishment, Cooks and colleagues have recently created miniature mass spectrometers, enabling the remote deployment of these analytical instruments including under battery power. Mass spectrometers, once roughly as large as an automobile, are now reduced to the size of a shoebox, allowing their widespread use in clinics, homeland security, the military, and food safety. Cooks noted, “We are trying to take powerful and sophisticated instruments out of the lab and into the real environment where, for example, they could monitor fresh produce all along the supply chain, from production to the consumers. This technology has the capability of testing for bacteria in only a matter of minutes as opposed to hours or even days for standard laboratory tests.”

Cooks described the Dreyfus Prize as a major career highlight. “I am particularly pleased that the Dreyfus Foundation chose chemical instrumentation as the topic of the prize,” Cooks stated, “because it is an emphatic recognition of the importance of instrumentation in the chemical sciences.”

Henry C. Walter, President of the Dreyfus Foundation, said, “Chemical instrumentation has shaped human life in a myriad of positive ways. Graham Cooks is a consummate innovator and it is a great pleasure to recognize him with the third Dreyfus Prize.”  

Richard N. Zare, the Marguerite Blake Wilbur Professor in Natural Science at Stanford University and a Board member of the Dreyfus Foundation, remarked, “Mass spectrometry has had an extraordinary impact on modern science, and Graham Cooks has changed the field in many important ways. He has developed critical new experimental instruments and methods and applied them to solve significant problems.” 

Cooks received BS. and Ph.D. degrees from the University of Natal, South Africa, and a second Ph.D. from Cambridge University. He has been at Purdue University since 1971. He is the recipient of many honors. These include the American Chemical Society awards in Chemical Instrumentation, Mass Spectrometry, Analytical Chemistry, and the F.A Cotton Award. He has been recognized internationally with both the Robert Boyle Medal and the Centennial Prize of the Royal Society of Chemistry.

The Dreyfus Foundation, based in New York, is a leading non-profit organization devoted to the advancement of the chemical sciences. It was established in 1946 by chemist, inventor, and businessman Camille Dreyfus, who directed that the Foundation's purpose be “to advance the science of chemistry, chemical engineering, and related sciences as a means of improving human relations and circumstances.” In broad terms, the Foundation programs advance young faculty of early accomplishment, develop leadership in environmental chemistry, and enhance chemistry education and public interest in chemistry.

Wetherill induction

Dr. Miranda Li Wu (right), president of the American Chemical Society, inducts Wetherill Laboratory of Chemistry as a National Historic Chemical Landmark.

The American Chemical Society (ACS) recognized the R. B. Wetherill Laboratory of Chemistry as a National Historic Chemical Landmark on April 26.

The building has served as a center for chemical education and research in the United States for more than 80 years. Generations of chemists and chemical engineers have studied in the building under renowned faculty, including Purdue Nobel laureates Herbert C. Brown (1979) and Ei-ichi Negishi (2010).

A ceremony held for the hallowed hall took place on the steps where thousands of chemists and their students have ascended for more than 80 years. Negishi, College of Science dean Jeff Roberts, associate dean and Chemistry Prof. Joe Francisco, and several other Purdue Chemistry elite were in attendance. Chemistry department head Paul Shepson and Tim Sands, executive vice president for academic affairs and provost, spoke before the official induction from ACS president Marinda Li Wu. A large, 40-pound plague was unveiled from underneath gold fabric and a large group of students, faculty, staff and community members erupted into applause.

The plaque will be installed between sets of doors on the front of Wetherill. The installation is expected to take place during the fall semester.

Advances made in Wetherill include developments in vapor-phase nitration of saturated hydrocarbons, palladium-catalyzed cross-coupling, tandem mass spectrometry, and the discovery of hydroboration and its application to numerous synthetic pathways. This work has provided versatile techniques for the creation of pharmaceuticals, agricultural chemicals, nitroparaffin-based explosives, and other products.

Named after local physician and lecturer Dr. Richard Benbridge Wetherill, the building was constructed in phases between 1928 and 1955 to accommodate a growing Department of Chemistry.

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