2023 Brown Investigator Award

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Prof. Anastassia Alexandrova

Theoretical chemist Professor Anastassia Alexandrova is the recipient of the 2023 Brown Investigator Award, in recognition of her curiosity-driven basic research in chemistry and physics.

One of seven mid-career researchers selected, Alexandrova will use the $2 million award to develop the fundamental theory describing surface chemistry of topological materials and explore their utility as catalysts.  

“Anastassia is incredibly well-deserving of this award,” said Distinguished Kenneth N. Trueblood Professor Neil Garg, the Chair of the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry. “She is exceptionally imaginative, constantly venturing into new directions, and bringing out-of-the-box ideas to multiple research fields.”

A professor of chemistry and biochemistry, Alexandrova’s laboratory focuses on computational and theoretical design and multi-scale description of new materials.  In recognition of her research, she has received numerous awards including the DARPA Young Faculty Award, NSF Career Award, Alfred Sloan Fellowship, ACS Rising Star Award from the Women Chemists Committee, ACS Phys Early Career Award in Theoretical Chemistry, the Max Planck-Humboldt medal, Fulbright Fellowship, and Herbert Newby McCoy Award for excellence in faculty research form the UCLA Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry.

Alexandrova’s work focuses on applied problems, explaining properties of materials and molecules, and making predictions of new functional materials that are then experimentally tested by her collaborators. For example, in heterogeneous catalysis, she developed a theory of dynamic ensembles of metastable catalyst states that drive the catalytic properties. This notion overturned a large body of works in this field that focused on just one catalyst state, and led to revision of some of the textbook material, such as the theory of Ostwald. She received an ACS Award as well as the Max Planck-Humboldt medal for this work.

In a very different field of enzymology, Alexandrova brings unique perspective on the role that intramolecular electric fields and field fluctuations play in enzymatic catalysis. She showed that large enzyme classes, despite differences in individual protein structures, have global electric fields in the active sites as a unifying catalytic factor.

In the area of quantum information science, where chemical complexity was avoided to the point of focusing on gas phase cold atoms, she brought chemical design tools that permitted development of complex molecules with quantum functional groups.  “Making progress in this area requires collaborations across multiple scientific fields. Researchers must learn and teach each other’s scientific language, and start making progress in the field where chemists have not stepped before,” Garg said. “Anastassia has the intensity and perseverance to make the needed connections.”  This effort recently resulted in Alexandrova being the lead PI on the new NSF Center for Chemical Innovation, just funded in Fall 2023 (only three such centers are funded annually Nation-wide).

Alexandrova’s group also has research directions in CO2 capture and conversion, and toxicology.

 “The scientists receiving the 2023 Brown Investigator Award are path-breaking researchers who have developed innovative approaches to address fundamental questions in the physical sciences,” said France Córdova, president of Science Philanthropy Alliance. “I know I speak for the Foundation’s eponymous founder when I say we can’t wait to see the discoveries they will make and how their careers will evolve.” 

Alexandrova is the very first recipient of the Brown Investigator Award from UCLA.  This year’s other recipients are: 

  • Columbia University – Cory Dean, Professor of Physics  
  • Johns Hopkins University – N. Peter Armitage, Professor  
  • Massachusetts Institute of Technology – Mircea Dincă, Professor of Chemistry and W. M. Keck Professor of Energy 
  • The Ohio State University – David A. Nagib, Miller Professor in Organic Chemistry  
  • UC Berkley – Holger Mueller, Professor 
  • University of Washington – Mark Rudner, Associate Professor of Physics  

The Brown Science Foundation, a Science Philanthropy Alliance member, is dedicated to the belief that scientific discovery is a driving force in the improvement of the human condition. Established in 1992 by Ross M. Brown, the foundation announced its invitation-only Brown Investigator Award program in 2020 with plans to make eight awards annually by 2025. The program supports the often-overlooked resource of mid-career physics and chemistry researchers in the U.S. 

Penny Jennings, UCLA Department of Chemistry & Biochemistry, penny@chem.ucla.edu.