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Chemical bonds

Jerry Atwood builds a legacy through his students

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  • Story by Jamie Scheppers
  • Photos by Shane Epping
  • Published: Oct. 17, 2008

Jerry Atwood stands in front of an artist's impression of a molecule he discovered earlier in his career.

In an unusual occurrence in the academic world, the New Journal of Chemistry dedicated its entire May 2008 issue to one person. That person was Jerry Atwood, a curators’ professor and chair of the Chemistry Department at the University of Missouri. The occasion was his 65th birthday, which he had celebrated in 2007.

The special issue began with an editorial introduction that listed many of Atwood’s numerous achievements, including his contribution of more than 700 scientific publications that have been cited  upwards of 23,000 times. As usual, the journal included research-based articles and opinion pieces on various topics in chemistry. This time, though, the introduction and nine of the articles were written by Atwood’s former students — all of them now scientists of New Journal of Chemistry-contributor caliber.

Professor Jerry Atwood’s career is replete with accomplishments. In 1969, he  first discovered liquid clathrates (lattices of one type of molecule that can trap a second kind of molecule), which led to the development of the field of “green” or “environmentally friendly” chemistry. In 1997, he uncovered a way to fabricate nanocapsules, which he’s currently trying to tweak for use as targeted drug-delivery mechanisms in the body. In 2002, Atwood found a way to store hydrogen and methane by coaxing the gas particles to cling to porous solids — a process called adsorption. That work has the potential to make safe and efficient hydrogen-fueled cars a reality.

Academic children

But Atwood doesn’t want to be remembered for these accomplishments alone. It’s his students, current (he’s not retiring yet) and former, he feels are some of his greatest contributions to the field of chemistry. His “academic children,” as he calls them.

Atwood says one of his friends, a distinguished academic at the University of Hyderabad in India, once told him: “In India, if you look at a person in a university who’s teaching and doing research, after the person’s been in the field for 20 years, you no longer ask what that person is doing, but you ask what that person’s students are doing.”

Atwood agrees wholeheartedly. “The greatest impact I can have will be to train people to go forward and also have impact. They, in turn, will train people to go forward to have impact,” he says. Many of his former students have done just that. The 10 who wrote articles to honor Atwood on his 65th birthday (one article appeared in a different journal) all have reached points in their careers at which they are influencing the next generation of budding chemists.

Pay it forward

Many of Atwood’s protégés use what they learned from Atwood to shape the way they lead research groups. Len Barbour worked with Atwood for nine years as a postdoctoral fellow before striking out on his own in South Africa, his home country. “I place an extremely high value on the lessons I learned by observing how he operates. I now try to run my own group in much the same way,” he says. Barbour says Atwood was always accessible to his research groups, no matter how busy he was fielding outside requests for his time. Barbour credits Atwood’s mentorship for his own success as a research chair under the SARChI Iniative, the most prestigious academic position in South Africa.

Jerry Atwood’s son, David Atwood, is an associate professor of chemistry at the University of Kentucky. He got into chemistry largely because of the contagious nature of his father’s passion for the subject. “I think what impressed me the most was how interested my father was in chemistry, in general, and how much he worked. It was clear that he really liked what he was doing and preferred being in the chemistry building working to being anywhere else.”

X-ray vision

Peter Junk, who is now head of the chemistry department at Monash University in Victoria, Australia, was given a lot of freedom as one of Atwood’s postdoctoral fellows. “He encouraged me to work on supramolecular systems that required X-ray crystallography as a technique for characterization,” Junk says. “He taught me the whole procedure to the point I ran my own X-ray service at James Cook University (North Queensland, Australia) several years later and now use this technique on routine basis.”

Atwood also hooked Robin Rogers on the technique. “I was given some rather explosive liquid clathrate syntheses to do as a second-year student with no lab experience other than freshman chemistry. That quickly turned me to X-ray crystallography.” Among other distinguished appointments, Rogers currently works on green chemistry and splits his time chairing departments at two different schools: the University of Alabama (where he first worked with Atwood) and Queens University in Belfast, Ireland. 

Big picture

Even though much of Atwood’s work focuses on tiny molecules, he has a much-admired knack for stepping back to look at the big picture. “He can walk into a lab, look at the structure of a new molecule and immediately see its importance in the context of modern science,” says Jon Steed, a former postdoctoral fellow at both the University of Alabama and MU, who is now a professor of inorganic chemistry at Durham University in Durham, England.

One day in 1993, Steed showed Atwood a molecule with a hole in the middle. “Jerry had the vision to recognize that our new ‘receptor’ might be interesting for sensing important biological anions or anions involved in pollution, such as phosphates and nitrate,” says Steed. “Since that time this field of ‘anion sensing’ has grown to be one of the most active areas of modern chemistry and remains a major part of my current research.”

In addition to the potential for drug delivery, these molecules — called calix-arenes — have the potential to be critical components of diagnostic technologies. Tony Coleman, who directs a research group in France, has developed a diagnostic test to detect the prion protein responsible for mad cow disease and its human equivalent, Creutzfeldt-Jacobs disease. Coleman’s team is also working on applications for cancer treatment and anti-bacterial agents.

More than molecules

Atwood has used his success as a prolific and skilled writer to hook others on publishing. Gregory Robinson, who first met Atwood in 1979 as an undergraduate chemistry major, remembers how Atwood “stressed that a good scientist should also strive to be a good writer.” Now, years later, Robinson is the Franklin Professor of Chemistry at the University of Georgia and, much to his students’ frustrations, places a great emphasis on clear, concise, informative writing.

Another former student, Len MacGillivray, who is now an associate professor at the University of Iowa, published in 1995 for the first time, sharing a byline with Atwood. “Jerry placed full trust in my research, data and writing style, and we sent the paper directly to the [Journal of Organic Chemistry]. Once it was accepted, I was hooked on getting my work into the scientific literature as quickly and efficiently as possible.”

Time will tell if any of Atwood's students can match his astonishing 700 publications, though.

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Last updated: June 6, 2013