Chemistry professor recognized with Arthur C. Cope Late Career Scholar’s Award

Portrait of Richard FinkeRichard Finke, professor and researcher in the Colorado State University Department of Chemistry, has won the prestigious Arthur C. Cope Late Career Scholar’s Award, which recognizes annually four late-career scholars with at least 25 years’ experience for their excellence in organic chemistry.

Finke was selected for the American Chemical Society’s national Arthur C. Cope Late Career Scholar’s Award based on his research on chemical catalysis. A chemical catalyst increases the rate of a desired chemical reaction, but has the special property of being able to come out of the reaction unused and unchanged.

“This special feature of catalysts means that the catalyst can then repeat the desired chemical transformation time and time again, often millions of times or more in many commercial applications,” said Finke.

The chemical phenomena of catalysis is essential to our current economic system and in pressing current issues, including climate change. Professor and Nobel Laurate Robert Grubbs at Cal Tech, who nominated Finke for the award, notes that “the benefits to society [of catalysis] are significant with an estimated $900 billion per year of chemicals and fuels produced from catalysis in the US alone.”

Discovering the correct catalyst for a chemical reaction is both a science and an art. As Finke explains it, discovering the correct catalyst can be likened to the famous Sherlock Holmes quote: “When you have eliminated the impossible, then whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.”

In the case of chemical catalysis, the ‘truth’ as Sherlock calls it, is actually “the previously hidden, actual catalyst,” Finke notes.  He further notes “That knowledge then allows one to tune and otherwise optimize the catalysis rationally rather than by brute-force, sometimes ineffective trial-and-error”.

The award citation states that it is “for his exceptional and scholarly efforts distinguishing homogeneous from heterogeneous catalysis of organic reactions,” that Finke was selected to receive the Arthur C. Cope Late Career Scholar’s Award.

Eugene Chen, a University Distinguished Professor and researcher in the Department of Chemistry noted the exceptional quality with which Finke performs his research.

“Rick’s research on catalysis is the epitome of how this type of research should be performed,” said Chen. “His hypothesis-driven research method has enabled him to correct or revise the mechanisms reported in the literature and discover new mechanistic pathways of catalytic reactions. His rigorous interrogation of exhaustive alternative hypotheses is legendary and the scientific method he teaches broadly impacts not only our own students and faculty, but also the larger catalytic science community. In short, his science holds the highest scholarly standards.”

Most important to Finke is the recognition this national award brings to his team, specifically his students, postdocs, collaborators, as well as to Colorado State University and its Department of Chemistry.

“It is gratifying to have one’s work and team be recognized while also contributing to the good of mankind,” he said.

In addition to this latest recognition, Finke has also been awarded the Scholarship Impact Award from CSU, a Dreyfus Teacher-Scholar Fellowship, and a prestigious Guggenheim Fellowship among many others. So far in his career he has 256 publications that have been cited over 19,000 times.