UT Chemist Wins Top National Science Foundation Award

KNOXVILLE — The National Science Foundation has honored University of Tennessee professor Dr. Peter Zhang with a CAREER Award, which recognizes the importance of his research and his commitment to improving science education.

Dr. Peter Zhang

The award, NSF’s highest honor given to junior faculty, will provide Zhang with $580,000 over the next five years to fund both his research and his educational initiatives.

Zhang, assistant professor of chemistry, teaches general chemistry and chemistry research along with labs in inorganic chemistry and other special topics.

He plans to use the grant to increase opportunities for undergraduates to take part in research opportunities, and to open UT’s research labs to chemistry faculty from colleges and universities that may lack the facilities to conduct chemical research on-site.

“A CAREER Award is something every junior faculty member in the sciences aims for,” said Zhang who joined UT in 2001. “It is an honor to be considered part of the next generation of science.”

Zhang’s research analyzes the process by which enzymes are used in nature as catalysts in the creation of molecules, and how to design and construct artificial enzymes to best catalyze, or accelerate, the process of organic synthesis.

His goal is to find the most efficient ways to make new molecules. Those new molecules could potentially be used in drugs to treat a range of problems, from cancer to neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s.

“As a fellow chemist, I am very proud of this terrific honor that has been awarded to Professor Zhang. The NSF CAREER Award is one of the most prestigious awards that a young scientist can receive,” said College of Arts and Sciences Dean Bruce Bursten. “Peter’s receipt of this award is a testament to the success we have had in bringing extremely talented young faculty members to the University of Tennessee, not only in the sciences, but across all academic disciplines.”

As part of the grant’s object of linking education and research in developing junior faculty as scholar-teachers, Zhang’s educational initiatives will focus on bringing a more diverse array of people into chemistry.

First, he plans to use research opportunities as a hands-on way to attract students to the sciences. By giving undergraduate students the chance to participate in research often reserved for graduate-level students, Zhang hopes to expose them to a side of science that could spark their interest in research of their own.

Second, he hopes to enhance the quality of chemistry education at institutions where high-end research facilities are not available by opening his lab to visiting faculty. By hosting faculty from smaller colleges, Zhang will create an opportunity for them to stay current on the latest techniques and research, which will in turn improve the level of education they provide their students.

Finally, Zhang hopes to develop a program to help the general public better understand the role chemistry plays in their everyday lives.

“People don-t realize that everything is related to chemistry,” he said. “They hear the word chemistry and think of pollution and bad things, when chemistry contributes positively to their lives every day, from safer cars to better medicines.”

Contact: Jay Mayfield (865-974-9409)