Three CU-Boulder Chemistry Professors Win $500,000 National Science Foundation Career Awards

Published: March 11, 2009

University of Colorado at Boulder chemistry and biochemistry department chair David Walba said having a single assistant professor win a National Science Foundation CAREER Award would be phenomenal.

So it's not surprising that he is ecstatic over the news that three of the department's junior faculty have been awarded the prestigious honor.

CU-Boulder chemistry and biochemistry Assistant Professors Niels Damrauer, Rainer Volkamer and J. Mathias Weber each will receive at least $500,000 over a five-year period. The money will be used for both teaching and research.

"It's just a fantastic measure of the quality of the program," said Walba. "Our senior faculty do great things. But when your junior faculty are strong, then you're going in the right direction. It shows we have quality all the way through the ranks."

The Faculty Early Career Development Program, or CAREER, offers the NSF's most prestigious awards in support of junior faculty who exemplify the role of teacher-scholars.

Damrauer uses shaped laser fields and synthesis in efforts to control photochemical reactions. Prior to coming to CU-Boulder he was a postdoctoral fellow at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

"The NSF CAREER Award is a statement by one's scientific community that a productive and interesting research program is on its way to being established and worthy of further support," said Damrauer. "Behind such an award is a lot of hours, thought, ideas, analysis and failed and successful experiments by a talented and dedicated group of graduate students.

"These students have joined a research program before it is established and there is some risk in that," he said. "They should be very proud that their efforts are recognized and encouraged."

Damrauer said he will continue to work on solar energy conversion problems and will work to get the topic into the curriculum of elementary and middle schools and to help teachers in those grades with professional development.

Volkamer is an atmospheric chemist studying urban air pollution in Mexico City, China and more recently in the Denver-Boulder area. Volkamer also came to CU-Boulder from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

He said building a successful research program depends critically on the quality of graduate students and postdoctoral team members. Volkamer will continue his work developing small, portable and high-tech optical spectroscopic instruments to measure atmospheric composition and will build a hands-on learning experience for high school students to demonstrate how scientists use light to investigate air quality and climate change.

Weber came to CU-Boulder in 2006 from the University of Karlsruhe in Germany, where he was an independent junior research group leader. He also was the principal investigator of an independent junior research group in physical chemistry at the University of Karlsruhe.

Weber's current research centers around understanding how molecules interact with each other to form complexes and how energy flows through molecules.

Weber said the NSF award means he can better support his research team of graduate students "who are probably the most important part of a research group at a university." He plans to expand his experiments to investigate metal nanoparticles. From a teaching perspective, the work funded by the award will improve understanding of how chemistry students learn quantum mechanics, he said.