Romnes Award Supports New Research Areas in Yoon, Gopalan Groups

Professor Tehshik Yoon talks to two graduate students in the Yoon group labs, while looking at chemical structures and equations written on a window

Professor Tehshik Yoon knows that transforming an industry is no small task. Helping chemical manufacturers ‘go green’ will take time, cutting-edge research, and support.

Undaunted, Yoon and his team of 12 students are pioneering methods to synthesize chemicals using visible light. Harnessing sunlight to build bonds should sound familiar—the strategy is inspired by plant photosynthesis.

“The long-term goal is to use light, plus carbon dioxide, plus water to make complex organic molecules,” he says. “We want to make chemical manufacturing more sustainable.”

For his exceptional work, Yoon was honored earlier this spring with a Romnes Faculty Fellowship funded by the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation (WARF). The unrestricted $50,000 award will help the Yoon group explore a new direction in the lab as they investigate cheaper, more effective catalysts.

The Romnes honor is not Yoon’s first interaction with WARF. He has received support through the Fall Research Competition and recently filed a patent based on a class of compounds that may fight cancer or malaria.

He says the latest award could help spotlight his students too, as they pursue opportunities in the pharmaceutical sector. The research is already catching industry’s eye.

“They’re really intrigued, both by the environmental benefits as well as the new chemistry we’re learning how to conduct,” he says.

Yoon’s colleague, Professor Padma Gopalan, knows the feeling. The materials science expert plans to use her recent Romnes award to break fresh ground as well.

Gopalan and her group are designing new types of polymers that can self-assemble into the nanoscale components prized in microelectronics. She says the semiconductor industry is being pressed to make ever smaller features because the size of devices is shrinking every year.

The group also is looking at new types of coating materials. The coatings flaunt unique properties that could be used to differentiate stem cells, for example.

“The field is limited only to our imagination,” she says. “If we can come up with a simple chemistry which works well, can be applied easily and is scalable, the applications open up.”

Gopalan says she values the flexibility of the award, which allows her to determine how and where to devote the funds. Over the next few years she would like to focus on bio-inspired materials.

“This is a relatively new area for me,” she says. “I want to develop those concepts and ideas.”

The Romnes funding could have a snowball effect, enabling Gopalan to compete for Department of Energy grants, infuse more resources into the lab, and hire new graduate students and postdocs. 

Gopalan holds more than 15 patents and has received funding through the WARF Accelerator Program to speed some of her work towards commercialization.  

“It has given a unique perspective to my group and my students about what you can do with basic science and what is needed to do translational research,” she says. “That’s been very educational.”

The Romnes award is named for the late H.I. Romnes, former chairman of the board of AT&T and former president of the WARF Board of Trustees. 

WARF News Team