Teacher-Scholar Alumni News

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The department’s first Teacher-Scholar, Sharon Neufeldt, now an assistant professor at Montana State University, wins a prestigious 2020 Cottrell Scholar Award.

Neufeldt is one of 25 educators in the 2020 class of Cottrell Scholars, an award honoring both academic leadership and innovative research in the physical sciences. The $100,000 award will help fund Neufeldt’s research on cross-coupling, a type of reaction that is facilitated by metals such as nickel or palladium

Neufeldt was the first Cram Postdoctoral Teacher-Scholar in the UCLA Department of Chemistry & Biochemistry from 2013-2016. In addition to her teaching duties, she conducted research in Professor Ken Houk’s group where she studied organometallic systems using computational tools. While at UCLA, Neufeldt was the recipient of the 2015 Hanson-Dow Award for Excellence in Teaching award. She left UCLA in 2016 to accept an assistant professor postiion in the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry at Montana State University.  

From MSU News Service (by Rachel Hergett)

Montana State organic chemist Sharon Neufeldt wins Cottrell Scholar Award


Sharon Neufeldt, assistant professor of chemistry at Montana State University, center, speaks with Emily Reeves, a chemistry graduate student, while preparing a research experiment in the Neufeldt Lab on Wednesday, Feb. 15, 2017, in Bozeman, Mont., in the Chemistry and Biochemistry Research Building. MSU Photo by Adrian Sanchez-Gonzalez

BOZEMAN — An organic chemist from Montana State University is one of 25 educators in the 2020 class of Cottrell Scholars, an award honoring both academic leadership and innovative research in the physical sciences.

Sharon Neufeldt, an assistant professor in the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry in MSU’s College of Letters and Science, received the award last month for her project “Combined Experimental and Computational Approach to Improving Nickel and Palladium-Catalyzed Cross-Couplings.”

“The Cottrell Scholar award is one that Dr. Neufeldt richly deserves,” said department head Joan Broderick. “She is an outstanding teacher with a vigorous research program, and this award will support her efforts to integrate these two aspects of her work in a way that supports the mission of the department and MSU.”

The Cottrell Scholar Award from the Research Corporation for Science Advancement includes $100,000 in funding over three years as well as access to other funding opportunities exclusive to award recipients. Only faculty in the third year of their first tenure-track position are eligible.

“The quality of the applicants and the many terrific proposals we receive can make it difficult to choose,” stated Silvia Ronco, the senior program director for the Research Corporation for Science Advancement, in a press release. “We look for innovative ideas that are likely to make a positive impact on science and on the education of tomorrow’s scientists.”

The award will help fund Neufeldt’s research on cross-coupling, a type of reaction that is facilitated by metals such as nickel or palladium. These reactions are used to form bonds between carbon atoms of two separate molecules. Carbon is the basis of life and thus of organic chemistry, so these reactions are well-known to chemists. However, controlling them can be challenging, Neufeldt explained. There are often two or more locations on one molecule where the second molecule could attach. Neufeldt and her team are trying to learn how to control the process so the two molecules connect at a specific desired site.

This work is imperative to fields such as pharmaceutical synthesis, Neufeldt said. For example, if a lab is unable to control the site where the molecules react, each reaction would create multiple products, lowering the yield of the desired pharmaceutical product.

“To control selectivity would make the reaction more efficient, more economical in terms of time and money and resources,” Neufeldt said.  

To study this selectivity, Neufeldt’s lab combines experimental and computational chemistry, using computer modeling to understand and make predictions about the work done in the lab. Neufeldt first began experimenting with computational chemistry during her post-doctoral research at UCLA.    

“I wanted to have a different way of understanding what the molecules are doing or why they’re doing what they’re doing, rather than only running laboratory experiments that can feel more empirical,” Neufeldt said.

The Cottrell Scholar Award integrates teaching and research, rather than focusing on one or the other.

“It’s an exciting award for me because it recognizes contributions — and potential for contributions — not just in research but also in education,” Neufeldt said.

Neufeldt’s plan for the award involves opening up more research opportunities for undergraduates in computational chemistry. Through the use of computers, Neufeldt will be able to engage several undergraduate students simultaneously. Her lab is currently home to seven doctoral candidates and five undergraduate researchers.

“Getting involved with research as an undergraduate is very important if you think you might be interested in the sciences,” Neufeldt said. “Instructional labs are important for learning some techniques, but it’s not the same as going into a lab — or onto a computer — and asking a question no one knows the answer to.”