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Finding New Frontiers in Chemistry

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As a kid, Daniel Seidel looked beyond the surfaces of nature to the processes that lay beneath.

“I would ask questions like, ‘What starts a fire?’’’ Seidel said. “I wanted to know what makes a specific reaction work the way it does.”

His intellectual curiosity eventually led him to the imposing field of organic chemistry, where the 39-year-old professor is expert not just at understanding chemical processes but improving upon them. His work could have a profound impact on the field, and in 2011 he received national and international awards.

But it is not only his work in the lab that has garnered recognition. He is also an accomplished teacher who believes in giving students, including undergraduates, every possible opportunity to do research.

“Chemistry is very logical, and a very nice tool for students to develop their skills and logic,” said Seidel, a professor in the Department of Chemistry and Chemical Biology in the School of Arts and Sciences.  “And it’s an area that can make significant contributions to human wellbeing.”

Seidel’s team succeeded recently in selectively producing one form of an organic compound over another by using small-molecule catalysts in a way that previously required the use of biological enzymes. That breakthrough opens up new possibilities for the synthesis of complex molecules, which is important to drug discovery.  

“Chemists have become efficient at making essentially any stable molecule,” said Seidel, “But the reality is that it might take 10 years, and cost a lot of money to build it because we are not nearly as good as nature.

“So the goal now in the field is to find simplifying strategies, to build really complex molecules very quickly.”

Seidel’s work has been widely recognized. In 2011 alone, he won an Alfred P. Sloan Research Fellowship for outstanding early-career scientists, and an Amgen Young Investigator Award for work that contributes to the pharmaceutical and biomedical research industry.  He is also the recipient of the 2012 Carl Duisberg Memorial Award of the German Chemical Society.

Seidel grew up in East Germany and participated in the protests in 1989 that culminated in the fall of the Berlin Wall and the reunification of Germany. His experience growing up in an authoritarian regime, where access to higher education was restricted, has shaped his approach to students.

“In East Germany I would never have become a chemist; because of the way the system was set up,” he said.  “So as a professor, I am very committed to creating a stimulating research environment and providing my students with research projects that complement their interests and abilities.”

Indeed, he has been honored at Rutgers for his teaching. In 2011 he received a Presidential Fellowship for Teaching Excellence and an SAS Award for Distinguished Contributions to Undergraduate Education. He also received a Board of Trustees Research Fellowship for Scholarly Excellence.

Seidel’s students say they’re drawn to his combination of enthusiasm and high expectations, and his willingness to let students, including undergraduates, work on his research team.

“He is a very hard working person in the lab,” said Diana Sun, a first-year student.  “He doesn’t hover, but if you’re in his group, he expects you to dedicate the time and he expects results.”

Seidel always seems to draw a crowd for his office hours, Sun added. One reason is that organic chemistry is challenging. She also said students find him engaging and approachable.

“He is very good about answering people’s questions,” Sun said. “He explains things really well.” 



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