D. Wynne Thorne Profile: Chemistry Redefined
USU's top researcher is changing the way chemists view metallic bonds.
by Anna McEntire
Chemistry and Biochemistry
For Alex Boldyrev, the road from Siberia to Cache Valley was long and winding. The varied journey, though, ultimately led him to the forefront of chemistry theory and to a prestigious place among USU’s top researchers.
Born in the Soviet Union, Boldyrev received his doctorate at Moscow State University, and he then went on to receive a Habilitation degree (limited to independent researchers, with documented accomplishments, in the German and Soviet systems) at the USSR Academy of Sciences. He spent 25 years in the Russian Academy of Sciences, where he rose through the ranks to the Head of a scientific group and Leading Researcher.
Upon the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Boldyrev won a Humboldt Fellowship to work in Germany. Boldyrev came to Utah State University in 1999, and he brought with him a bold new approach central to chemical theory.
“Boldyrev is at the heart of what is arguably the most creative and productive scientific research program at Utah State University,” said Steve Scheiner, former head of USU’s chemistry and biochemistry department.
Boldyrev and his team have started a discussion that’s causing the scientific community to rethink long-held ideas about the nature of inorganic compounds. The team asserts that characteristics believed to apply only to organic compounds can be extended to some metallic compounds. It’s an idea that, until recently, was thought to be impossible.
“Our studies make people argue with us constantly as we defend our point of view,” team member Dmitry Zubarev says. “What we’re discovering about certain metals is unexpected.”
Since the 19th century, chemists have used the term “aromaticity” to describe the chemical bonding properties of organic compounds. The term is a bit misleading to the layperson, as the concept has nothing to do with the “aroma” associated with varied compounds.
In a nutshell, aromaticity refers to a chemical property in which atoms bond in rings to form stable organic compounds. By developing chemical-bonding models capable of explaining and predicting the structures of metallic clusters, the USU researchers are revealing that metals, too, exhibit aromaticity.
“It’s a big step,” Boldyrev says. “What we’re discovering is that metal systems have properties that allow them to bond in ways that mimic organic materials.”
“Boldyrev’s aspirations will inevitably provoke skepticism, jealousy and intrigue,” said J. V. Ortiz, professor and chairman of Auburn University’s department of chemistry and biochemistry. “His ideas, though, are destined for tomorrow’s textbooks.”
Ascertaining the existence of this type of bonding is important, Boldyrev says, as it could improve scientists’ understanding of the nature of catalytic activity and lead to the design of new catalysts.
“The development of chemical bonding models that display this process could have a significant impact on rational design of nanocatalysts, nanomaterials with tailored properties, nano-scale electronic devices and more,” he says. “That’s our goal.”
Boldyrev published 126 articles during his tenure as leading researcher at the USSR Academy of Sciences. Since 1990, he has published another 144 research articles in some of the highest-ranking peer-reviewed journals in his field. Publishing between five and 13 papers each year, Boldyrev was cited 568 times in 2009. These numbers are very high, comparable, and sometimes in excess of, those of notable researchers in his field from institutions such as Harvard, MIT, and Berkeley.
Boldyrev has received numerous recognitions for his research success, including the D. Wynne Thorne Career Research Award, USU’s highest research honor (sidebar).
Beyond his scientific aims, Boldyrev is mentoring a new generation of scientists confidently poised to tackle new levels of thought.
“The atmosphere you work in is one of the most important keys for success,” team member Alina Sergeeva said. “Dr. Boldyrev inspires us to work hard every day. He’s a shining example of the professor I am eager to become one day.”
“What I admire most about Dr. Boldyrev is that he treats our research team as if we were his own family,” Sergeeva said. “He’s concerned about us. He feels responsible for us. He stays in touch with former team members who have graduated to offer his support.”