A new era in chemistry

June 1, 2011

Frick Chemistry Laboratory — the new home of the University's Department of Chemistry — presents the perfect staging area to break scientific ground, to engage students by actively involving them in cutting-edge work, and — according to the department's leader — to provide "the best education in undergraduate chemistry in the world."

Professor David MacMillan (Photo by Brian Wilson)"What we want is for Princeton to be the best place to conduct chemical research and to learn chemistry on a global level," said David MacMillan, the chair of the department, who is overseeing a bold expansion with recruitment of top-tier faculty. "We are going to get there by doing what Princeton does best, which is to focus on the best people, from professors at the height of their careers to undergraduate students taking their first major steps toward realizing their potential."

Of prime importance, the department aims to recruit talented graduate students and nurture their development into the best researchers in the world in the chemical sciences, added MacMillan, the A. Barton Hepburn Professor of Organic Chemistry.

"That's the plan, and we are not going to deviate from it," he said. "The building being probably the best chemistry building on the planet for academia is in alignment with that."

Featuring two wings and a central atrium, the modern building was designed to foster cross-disciplinary collaboration.

Key Research Areas

Students and faculty in the chemistry department have begun to do work where the lines between chemistry and other disciplines merge. Li Sun, a postdoctoral researcher in Yang's group, calibrates a laser array. (Photo by Brian Wilson) "We will be focusing on areas where chemistry mixes directly and significantly with other leading disciplines, such as biology, physics and engineering, and, notably, where they are expected to produce solutions with a pronounced, beneficial impact on society," MacMillan said.

• Chemical biology: Scientists will cross disciplines to engage in projects that intersect with many subjects in biology, such as biophysics and bioinorganic chemistry. The goal is to create or aid in the development of new medicines through a better understanding of biology at the chemical or molecular level.

 • Energy: This research will seek to expand the capability of alternative energies, such as designing chemical capacitors to store photonic energy from sunlight, using hydrogen and oxygen bonds.

 • Catalysis and chemical synthesis: Catalysis, the speeding up or sometimes the slowing down of the rate of a chemical reaction, is caused by the addition of some substance that does not undergo a permanent chemical change. The search for new catalysts is of wide interest in both research and industry. Researchers will undertake plans to find new catalysts to develop new chemical reactions that will reshape the way scientists think about the construction of complex molecules -- a central requirement for the discovery of new medicines.

• Materials: Collaborations will include quests for new materials with the ability to convey electrons and photons at higher speeds and capacities that will intensify as the demand for faster computers and high-quality imaging systems grows.                                                                                                           

"These four areas represent the bulk of what chemists will be researching over the next 20 years," MacMillan said.

Facilities aid in recruiting, enable cutting-edge research


When building the Frick Chemistry Laboratory, many of the chemistry department's researchers had an opportunity to consult with designers and architects to ensure that the space would meet their needs in terms of accommodating workspace and scientific instrumentation. The building was a crucial aid in recruiting new faculty, MacMillan said. "There is no doubt that scientists were attracted to the new building with its state-of-the-art labs and instrumentation and the opportunities it offered for enhanced collaboration, both within the department and outside it."



Associate professor Haw Yang (Photo by Brian Wilson)"The University values deep scholarship and at the same time supports innovative, groundbreaking ideas … It is absolutely exciting to be part of the team that continues to create new opportunities to advance Princeton chemistry, with a pace that accelerates exponentially with every addition of a new member.”

-- Associate Professor of Chemistry Haw Yang, who joined the faculty in 2009. Yang’s research is at the forefront of physical chemistry, materials chemistry, and the biophysics of single biological macromolecules






Assistant professor Abigail Doyle (Photo by Brian Wilson)"It's motivating to be a part of this -- I can look down the long hallway and see many of my colleagues … My students are constantly bumping into students from different research groups, and their exchange of ideas is good for our science … It is not insular here."


-- Assistant Professor of Chemistry Abigail Doyle, who joined the faculty in 2008. Doyle’s research focuses on the design of new and efficient ways to synthesize biologically active molecules and chemical tracers for positron emission tomography imaging studies






"It's important to have bridges between disciplines."

-- Thomas Muir, the Van Zandt Williams Jr. Class of 1965 Professor of Chemistry, who joined the faculty in 2011.  One of the world’s premier chemical biologists, Muir’s research combines tools of organic chemistry, biochemistry and cell biology in efforts to develop a suite of new technologies that provide fundamental insight into how proteins work.

Frick Chemistry Laboratory (Photo by Denise Applewhite)

Building's equipment serves research and industry

Frick's 265,000-square-feet of space houses facilities for nuclear magnetic resonance imaging, mass spectroscopy, catalysis, and biochemical separations.

While some of the instruments in Frick are dedicated to particular faculty-led research groups, the building contains four shared facilities. Most are located in the basement because of research functions that require very low vibration conditions, but the feeling of open collaboration is maintained, as the facilities are visible behind glass walls. The facilities are critical to the research work of undergraduates, graduate students and postdoctoral fellows, all of whom have equal access to the technology. 


A collection of seven nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) machines serves the campus and is used by many academic collaborators. The NMR facility is designed with support areas such as the data-handling room, a sample preparation room with a sterile hood, and a meeting room for educational activities and for use by senior thesis students. The instruments are largely hands-on and can be operated by students and postdoctoral researchers for their own experiments, although lab directors will be available for consultation and collaboration on more sophisticated applications.


Frick also houses a new mass spectrometry facility that accommodates several machines acquired in recent years in a spacious, open setting. Mass spectrometry is a highly sensitive technique that identifies chemicals based on their size and electrical charge.

Most of the spectrometers at Frick are available to experimenters on campus. The design of the mass spectrometry facility allows for the incorporation of new instruments without serious disruption. The director of the spectrometry facility trains and supervises students to use the facility, and also carries out collaborative experiments.

The Merck Catalysis Center and a "separations facility" maintained by the department share another all-glass enclosure. The catalysis center, the result of collaborative funding from Merck & Co. and the University, is open for research to all faculty. 


While the catalysis center focuses on the development of new catalysts through efficient screening technology with automated analysis and robotic operation, the biochemical separations facility makes available technology and expertise for purification of organic compounds, with a focus on chiral separations using liquid carbon dioxide as a solvent. The director of the facility and two staff members carry out purifications primarily for the chemistry and molecular biology departments, as well as for outside users from industry.

According to MacMillan, it is all in keeping with what the University needs in order to lead the field.

"If you want to have quality, there has to be quality in every component," he said. "So you need the best people, the best students, you have to have the best infrastructure, the best building, the best staff -- every component of it has to be of such high quality."