University of Rochester

Two Chemists Receive Prestigious Sloan Fellowships

May 16, 2003

Two chemists at the University of Rochester have been awarded Alfred P. Sloan Foundation research fellowships. Patrick Holland and Kara Bren, both assistant professors of chemistry, are two of 117 award recipients who will receive $40,000 toward their research programs over the next two years.

"We are all delighted that these young faculty have been recognized by selection as A. P. Sloan Fellows," says William Jones, chair of the Department of Chemistry. "Both have made outstanding discoveries in their respective fields, and we are honored to have them in our department."

Holland is an expert in the fixation of nitrogen, the process of turning nitrogen into biologically useful hydrogen and ammonia. Pulling nitrogen from the air to make fertilizer is one of the biggest commercial chemical enterprises in the world, involving a complex process of heating dangerously combustible hydrogen under very high pressures. Holland explores how some simple bacteria are able to fix nitrogen without the high pressures and dangerous conditions.

"We've shown that a certain type of iron can stretch nitrogen bonds and make the nitrogen more susceptible to bonding with hydrogen to produce ammonia," says Holland.

Knowing how nature so easily pulls nitrogen from the atmosphere may lead to a better understanding of how ecology may balance itself, and may eventually provide a safer, more economical method of nitrogen fixing for the multi-billion-dollar fertilizer industry.

Bren is working to understand proteins that have metal ions bound to them, known as metalloproteins. Metals in biological systems play important roles in many processes, and Bren uses the special properties of metals to better understand metalloprotein biological function. Her area of specialty is studying how metalloproteins move and change their shape when they perform their functions. Proteins she is particularly interested in are metalloproteins from bacteria that thrive in extremely hot environments. Bren and her group are studying how these proteins control their motions so that they can resist losing their shape the way most proteins would at temperatures of 212 degrees Fahrenheit.

Sloan fellowships are designed to fund young scholars in the early stages of their careers. The foundation has given more than $99 million to 3,800 researchers since the program began in 1955. Twenty-eight former Sloan Fellows have received Nobel Prizes.