Chemistry professor receives National Science Foundation CAREER Award

Maria Landschoot
January 28, 2021

UNIVERSITY PARK, PA. — Beth Elacqua, assistant professor of chemistry, has been honored with a Faculty Early Career Development (CAREER) award from the National Science Foundation (NSF) in recognition of her work on the “synthesis of polymer-based nanoreactors to investigate homogeneous dual catalysis under confinement.”

These nanoreactors can be thought of like simplified models of nature’s polymers, wherein the precise shapes and nano-sizes enable chemical reactions to take place in small, confined areas in an efficient manner.

The CAREER award is the NSF's most prestigious award in support of early-career faculty who have the potential to serve as academic role models in research and education and to lead advances in the mission of their department or organization. The CAREER award will provide five years of funding to support Elacqua’s work.

Both nature and the chemical industry use catalysts to speed up the rate of chemical reactions. Catalysts that work together must “see” each other and interact in order to achieve the target transformation, however catalysts are present in low concentrations, and in many cases diffuse throughout solution. Elacqua’s research project aims to determine how confining catalysts that work together allows for more effective communication between them, thus increasing their efficiency. She ultimately hopes to develop novel strategies for these cooperative catalytic transformations.

Elacqua is particularly interested in studying polymer nanoreactors for photoredox catalysis, which use energy from light to speed up a reaction, including for reactions where two catalysts communicate (dual catalysis) and where multiple reactions occur in sequence (tandem reactions). The group will develop synthetic strategies to incorporate multiple catalysts into single-chain polymers that fold controllably to form discrete, nanometer-sized structures with high catalyst density.  By studying these systems, the Elacqua group recently discovered a polymer which accelerates the formation of cyclobutane-based molecules in comparison to reported small-molecule systems, owing to efficient communication between the catalysts. Because these polymers have facilitated accelerated photoredox catalysis, they may enable more powerful and challenging reactions to occur with ease.

Elacqua was previously honored with the Thieme Chemistry Journal Award and ACS Doctoral New Investigator Award in 2020. She has published more than 35 scientific papers in journals such as ACS Catalysis, Accounts of Chemical Research, and the Journal of the American Chemical Society.

Prior to joining the faculty at Penn State in 2017, Elacqua was a postdoctoral research associate at the Molecular Design Institute and the Department of Chemistry at New York University. She earned her doctoral degree at the University of Iowa in 2012 and a bachelor's degree at Le Moyne College in 2006.

Last Updated January 28, 2021