Wickens wins Faculty Early Career Development award from NSF

Man with glasses in red plaid shirt smiling
Zach Wickens

Prof. Zachary Wickens has won a Faculty Early Career Development (CAREER) award from the National Science Foundation.

The CAREER award supports early-career faculty who may serve as academic role models in research and education and who may lead advances in the mission of their department or organization. Learn more about the award here.

With this Award, the Chemical Synthesis Program of the NSF Division of Chemistry is supporting Wickens and his students, whose research enables the rapid and sustainable access to molecules integral to the pharmaceutical and agrochemical industries.

Specifically, the Wickens group’s research introduces new reactions to leverage abundant and inexpensive molecular building blocks that are largely untapped in organic synthesis because they are inert towards activation by all but the harshest chemical reagents. To address this long-standing challenge, Wickens and his team designed a family of catalysts to combine energy from electricity and visible light together–rather than hazardous chemical reagents–to drive energetically demanding reactions under safe, selective, and mild reaction conditions.

In parallel with these research activities, Wickens is advancing multiple educational and outreach initiatives each designed to increase the accessibility of organic chemistry. For example, Wickens is leveraging student-centered approaches to build a new chemistry course with the aim of increasing retention of minoritized groups in the educational pipeline by facilitating the transition from undergraduate to graduate education. Beyond educational initiatives, Wickens collaborates with the Wisconsin Institute of Discovery and local artists to cultivate interest in science among members of the local community through science inspired street art. Read more about the science to street art initiative here.

Wickens and his research group are developing new strategies to promote thermodynamically challenging reductions under otherwise mild conditions. Strong reductants, such as alkali metals, possess a sufficient thermodynamic driving force to induce reactivity from even the most reductively recalcitrant functional groups. Rapid reduction of open-shell intermediates to anionic species under these conditions provides access to polar reaction manifolds; however, it also excludes the complementary reactivity of radical intermediates. In contrast, visible-light photoredox catalysis is a powerful strategy to selectively promote radical chemistry because the active reductant is generated in low concentration via excitation. Unfortunately, the energy from visible light alone is insufficient to match the reduction potentials of alkali metals and consequently many synthetically attractive feedstocks are thermodynamically precluded.

Rather than relying entirely on visible-light to drive the reaction, the Wickens lab has designed catalysts to supplement energy from a mild cathodic potential with a visible photon. This is achieved through the use of electrochemically-generated persistent radical anions as photocatalysts with excited state reduction potentials far beyond conventional photoredox catalysis.

The educational plan is comprised of three distinct initiatives each designed to improve to improve the accessibility of the scientific enterprise. Wickens is developing a new graduate-level course to facilitate the transition into graduate school, redesigning elements of introductory organic chemistry to reduce the racial achievement gap in this course, and engaging the local community in science through diverse science-inspired street art projects.