In May, the Arnold and Mabel Beckman Foundation announced its 2022 class of Arnold O. Beckman Postdoctoral Fellows in Chemical Sciences, and this latest class includes Illinois chemistry alumnus Andrew Zahrt (PhD, '20, Denmark).
Zahrt is now a postdoctoral researcher at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. While a graduate student at Illinois, Zahrt received the UIUC chemistry Vanderveer Voorhees Award, which is presented to a graduate student with the most creative Independent Research Proposal. Among other research, Zahrt worked on a project in the Denmark lab that used a computer-driven workflow and machine learning to develop a more efficient and versatile method of selective catalyst prediction.
Q&A with Andrew Zahrt
How does it feel to receive this prestigious fellowship?
It is a surreal experience – I am both honored and extremely grateful. This is not something I could have achieved without the support of many mentors and colleagues along the way.
What will your research as an A.O. Beckman Postdoctoral Fellow entail?
The structure of molecules dictates the function of molecules. As such, the molecular structures organic chemists can synthesize determines the molecular functions (e.g., pharmaceuticals, agrochemicals, polymers, organic electronics, etc.) we can access. The types of molecules organic chemists can create, and the efficiency in which they can create them, is determined by the types of reactions available to them; you can think of reactions as tools in the toolbox of the synthetic chemist. The method by which we come up with new reactions is largely driven by chemists’ intuition and creativity.
My postdoctoral research seeks to use machine learning and automated experimentation to increase the rate of reaction discovery, ideally unveiling reactions which are unintuitive and unlikely to be discovered rationally. By deploying this discovery method in emerging areas of organic chemistry, we hope to drastically increase the rate that tools are added to the organic chemist’s toolbox.
How did your graduate work at Illinois prepare you for this A.O. Beckman Postdoctoral Fellowship?
I always say that I think the Denmark lab was the best place that I could have ended up. Early on in my graduate career, Professor Denmark was very hands on, which I needed to be successful. Once I grew as a scientist, he gave me freedom to work independently and pursue my own ideas. I think the most valuable thing I learned in the Denmark lab is how to think and work independently.
In addition to synthetic organic chemistry, Professor Denmark supported my “extracurriculars,” including applied quantum chemistry, programming, and machine learning and would arrange any support I needed to grow in these areas. This interdisciplinary foundation relates directly to my work in the Jensen lab at MIT. In my post doc, I draw on all of these areas while seeking to combine them with automated experimentation. I feel that this training to approach a problem from multiple perspectives has become a large portion of my identity as a scientist.
Recipients of the Beckman Postdoctoral fellowships are selected after a three-part review led by a panel of scientific experts. The fellowship provides salary and research support to postdoctoral scholars with the highest potential for success in an independent academic career in the chemical sciences, and to assist in their moves from mentored yet independent researchers to tenure-track positions.
“This program seeks out young scientists that can introduce new methods, processes and instrumentation to the scientific community. Congratulations to the 2022 class of Arnold O. Beckman Postdoctoral Fellows – individuals who are meeting the program’s aims by doing research that is both important and innovative,” shared Dr. Anne Hultgren, Executive Director of the Arnold and Mabel Beckman Foundation. “We look forward to providing them with support as they transition to independent research careers.”
Located in Irvine, California, the Arnold and Mabel Beckman Foundation supports researchers and nonprofit research institutions in making the next generation of breakthroughs in chemistry and the life sciences. Founded in 1978 by 20th century scientific instrumentation pioneer Dr. Arnold O. Beckman, the Foundation supports United States institutions and young scientists whose creative, high-risk, and interdisciplinary research will lead to innovations and new tools and methods for scientific discovery. For more information, visit http://www.beckman-foundation.org/.
-Tracy Crane, Department of Chemistry