Photo by Andrew Campbell
Photo by Andrew Campbell
Garbage bags. Laptop computers. Food packaging. Wire insulation. Kayaks. Surgical implants. From the mundane to the life-saving, plastics are ubiquitous, an essential part of people's lives from Alaska to Zimbabwe.
Although Tobin Marks, the Vladimir N. Ipatieff Professor of Catalytic Chemistry, never envisioned a career related to this multibillion-dollar industry — he once dreamed of becoming a historian or a writer — the talented chemist has made his mark by designing better catalysts for cleaner, greener and more efficient plastics production.
He also makes new synthetic materials with astounding electronic and optical properties and loves to delve into some of the remaining mysteries of the periodic table. But perhaps the contribution dearest to him is the impact he has had on his students.
Since coming to Northwestern in 1970 as a young professor straight out of graduate school, Marks has mentored around 200 undergraduate and graduate students and postdoctoral fellows — a phenomenal number of exceptional minds now fanned out around the globe.
But one former student keeps coming back like a boomerang, and a large crowd of others are planning on coming back to campus this fall.
They must have a good reason.
"Brilliant, inspired, indefatigable, astonishing, one of the most distinguished chemists in the world," says Mark Ratner (G69), Charles E. and Emma H. Morrison Professor in Chemistry, who has known Marks for 28 years. "If he gets an idea, he pursues it, even if he has to make the molecular compounds himself."
A master of the molecule in many ways, Marks studies and designs single molecules in order to make better catalysts for new kinds of plastics, while in his molecular optoelectronics work Marks designs arrays of "smart" molecules that will self-assemble into, or spontaneously form, structures that can conduct electricity, switch light on and off or emit and detect light. These structures could lead to the world's most versatile and stable light-emitting diodes (LEDs) as well as organic transistors.
This work requires Marks to excel in so many different areas — chemistry, materials, catalysis, optics — that he has been called "a modern Renaissance man."
"What fascinates me in science is making new things that no one has ever made before and understanding their properties on a fundamental level — and also with a mind toward whether the discoveries might have some useful application for society," says Marks, who was trained as an inorganic chemist.
Marks, who is also a professor of materials science and engineering, stresses that he always starts with a basic understanding of matter and the changes that chemists can induce in matter.
Not content working in just one domain, Marks finds the interface between inorganic and organic chemistry, or hard and soft matter, to be full of magic, challenge and new ideas. This interdisciplinary curiosity draws him through the Technological Institute's labyrinthine halls to exchange ideas with colleagues in chemistry, biology, engineering, materials science and physics.
Marks gives structure to his wide-ranging scientific interests by managing nearly 40 students and postdocs working in four diverse research subgroups, each having very little formal subject overlap with the others, but with much synergy. The subgroups study organometallic chemistry and catalysis, photonics, metal-organic chemical vapor deposition (work with thin films) and molecular electronics.
Curiosity motivates Marks more than anything.
"We are constantly wanting to do new things, to solve mind-boggling problems where people say, 'Gee, I never thought that could be done,' or 'Why didn't I think of that?'" he says. "Imagine seeing something that no one has ever seen before. It can be earthshaking, it can be a puzzle, it can be something that benefits humanity. I wake up every morning thinking about that."
Marks is most famous for two things, says Ratner. From a chemist's point of view, Marks is best known for exploring a whole region of the periodic table that people had not looked at before, elements known as actinides and lanthanides.
"He wondered what organometallic materials could be made from the heavy elements and came up with new molecular architectures incorporating soft and hard matter," says Ratner. "These studies contributed new chapters to the book of fundamental chemistry."
The other breakthrough came from the design and understanding of a co-catalyst that led to what is now a standard process for producing better polyolefins, including polyethylene and polypropylene. Found in everything from sandwich wrap to long underwear, these versatile and inexpensive plastics are lighter in weight and more recyclable than previous plastics.
The discovery resulted from Marks' collaborative work with the Dow Chemical Company, a fruitful relationship that began 20 years ago. By trying to understand how Dow's existing catalyst in the olefin polymerization process worked, Marks and his colleagues came up with a better one by replacing a number of the elements in the molecule.
"Tobin Marks has been a phenomenal help to us — he is just so amazingly bright," says James C. Stevens, a research fellow at Dow. "His contributions were important in generating new high-efficiency catalysts, which resulted in low costs." Those catalysts produce plastics for automobile parts, which contribute to a lighter, more fuel-efficient vehicle, and for home insulation.
"Tobin is only one of about three or so in academia who have made contributions to the polyolefin field," says F. Albert Cotton (H81), a professor of chemistry at Texas A&M University and Marks' thesis preceptor when Marks was a doctoral student at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. "That is why he is greatly admired by chemical companies. Tobin has distinguished himself in every area he has worked in."
Catalysis is a technology that is critical to the efficient manufacturing of many kinds of materials and chemicals. A catalyst is a metal entity surrounded by a complementary organic structure that initiates or accelerates a chemical reaction without being changed itself. A fundamental understanding of how metal complexes undergo chemical transformations is essential to catalysis research.
"Tobin made the catalyst systems easier to study," says John Roberts, one of Marks' graduate students and a member of the research group that studies the basic science of the catalytic process. "Because his co-catalyst is trackable scientifically, a lot is known about its structure and dynamics, and thus it is being developed further."
Other applications of Marks' work to improve catalysts include new routes to pharmaceuticals, solutions to energy-related problems and new chemical reagents that turn one chemical into another. An important element of catalysis is to generate useful substances without waste.
Marks certainly has found the right home for making his discoveries. The University has a long and distinguished history in catalysis research, stretching back to 1931 when Vladimir Ipatieff, then the world's leading catalysis expert, established a laboratory for industrial research at Northwestern after arriving from Russia.
"Catalysis is one of the most challenging areas of science, spanning the gamut from enzymology to pollution abatement," says Marks, who has 730 peer-reviewed publications and holds 78 patents. "Because catalytic reactions are by nature very efficient, they offer the ultimate challenge to scientists to understand and improve them."
"Students are precious, and educating them is a great responsibility," says Marks. "To see them start very green and then to see them learn, develop and mature is a great thrill."
The unusually large size — nearly 40 young scientists — and diversity of his research group reflect Marks' commitment to his students, his insatiable appetite for discovering new things and how they work and his consistent ability to pull in large amounts of funding. He is quick to point out that although much of his research has useful applications, his lab is not a startup company or a development lab. The usefulness, which is often due to "guided serendipity," is most welcome, says Marks, but not the end goal.
"Universities should be educating students at the undergraduate and graduate level, not making them into technicians. This is most important," says Marks, who frequently teaches a course for sophomores and juniors, and, over his career, has taught just about every inorganic chemistry course there is at Northwestern, plus a few that are now defunct.
His students value Marks' passion for the basic science questions that lie at the heart of their research. They also appreciate his being available to talk to them — about science, his links with industry or even a favorite Chicago restaurant — despite his busy schedule. He expects excellence, and his students are happy to deliver.
"The greatest impact Tobin has had on me is with his own motivation — not only the magnitude, but the source," says Roberts. "He is genuinely interested in science itself and has the well-being of his students, the scientific community and society at heart. He sees science as one of the best ways of creating value, and training people to become scientists is an excellent way of creating that value."
Marks' sense of community and fellowship extends to his dining table, where each year he and his family host Thanksgiving dinner for graduate students and postdocs who are far from home. (Marks' wife, Indrani Mukharji, is executive director for Northwestern's Technology Transfer Program. They have a 14-year-old daughter.)
"I went my first year of graduate school, when I couldn't manage to get home to upstate New York," says Geoffrey Hutchison, a doctoral candidate in chemistry who will graduate in June.
"Many of the guests were foreign, representing something like six different native languages. Since many at the table didn't quite understand Thanksgiving, Tobin spent some time explaining why Thanksgiving was such a big U.S. holiday and why we were having a traditional Thanksgiving menu. It was a wonderful meal."
Over the years, Marks has served a lot of Thanksgiving meals and mentored hundreds of students, and it all began with his first doctoral student, Afif M. Seyam.
"I was very much interested in his brilliant ideas and challenging research proposals," says Seyam (G74), a professor of chemistry at the University of Jordan in Amman. "Working with him in the lab, I learned firsthand from the master. He does such elegant, high-caliber experiments. I learned to do careful chemistry, nurse the experiment, work hard and keep up with the literature."
The lure of "working with the master" is so strong that, every few years, it pulls Seyam back to Northwestern. Seyam likes to spend his yearlong sabbaticals conducting research with Marks and his group.
"I love the place," says Seyam, whose expertise lies in organometallic chemistry and catalysis. "The friendly people, the excellent research facilities and the warm welcome of my mentor. He is kind and human, and he always treats me like a brother."
Seyam plans to join a large group of Marks' former students and collaborators who will return to campus Oct. 15-16 to honor the man who launched them into their careers. "We are having a big Marks Group reunion to celebrate, of all the crazy things, my 60th birthday," says Marks. "I expect a large group of people here from all over the country, from all over the world. It should be a lot of fun."
"Like every scientist, I was turned on by one or two enthusiastic teachers," says Marks, who grew up in suburban Washington, D.C., and was fascinated with the Smithsonian museums. "I try to imbue my students with that excitement."
His parents, both children of Russian immigrants, also had a great respect for learning, even though neither went to college because of the Depression. Marks' father, a businessman, often talked about his high school chemistry class and how much he enjoyed it.
Now, as one of his students put it, Marks sleeps and showers chemistry. He typically works a seven-day week. In addition to managing his research group and teaching, he travels to conferences, gives lectures around the world, devours the scientific literature, writes grant proposals, publishes papers, consults with companies and collaborates with colleagues. How does he do it?
Ratner thinks he knows. "Tobin knows the fundamental chemistry and physics very well and understands them deeply," he says. "He also has remarkable focus on the subject at hand. The tremendous joy he has in his work is inspiring."
During his career, Marks has been honored with a slew of awards, including some of the most prestigious national and international awards in the fields of inorganic, catalytic, materials and organometallic chemistry. (Marks, who won the Linus Pauling Medal in 2001, met the Nobel laureate Pauling, the scientist he most admires, at a symposium years ago.) Recent honors include the American Institute of Chemists Gold Medal, the Burwell Award of the North American Catalysis Society, the Sir Edward Frankland Prize Lectureship of the British Royal Society of Chemistry and the Karl Ziegler Prize of the German Chemical Society. Marks also is recipient of three American Chemical Society national awards and the American Chemical Society Chicago Section's 2001 Josiah Willard Gibbs Medal, regarded by many as the highest award given to chemists next to the Nobel Prize. He was elected to the National Academy of Sciences and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1993.
Marks fondly remembers the first award he received, the National Fresenius Award from the honorary society Phi Lambda Upsilon. He put the plaque up on his wall and the next morning found that the metal had separated from the wood and fallen on the floor.
"Perhaps that should remind us all not to get too infatuated with awards," says Marks. "They are not nearly as important as the legacy we leave behind — our students, the enduring science we've done and how we've tried to make this a better world."
Megan Fellman is a senior editor in the Department of University Relations. She covers the sciences and engineering for the media relations group.