back to news Jan. 12, 2015

Chemist Receives Five Year $520,000 NSF CAREER Award

Hannah Shafaat, assistant professor, chemistry and biochemistry, has been granted a five-year, $520,000 NSF CAREER award for her project, “Metalloenzyme mechanisms probed by resonance Raman spectroscopy.”

The NSF CAREER award is the top award given by the National Science Foundation to support the work of junior faculty members. Those selected exemplify the role of teacher-scholars through outstanding research, excellent education and the integration of education and research within the context of the mission of their organizations.

Shafaat came to Ohio State in the fall of 2013 after two years as a Humboldt Foundation Postdoctoral Fellow at the Max Planck Institute for Chemical Energy Conversion in Mülheim an der Ruhr, Germany.

Prior to moving overseas, she was a graduate student at the University of California, San Diego, where she was an NSF Graduate Research Fellow and a National Defense Science and Engineering Graduate Fellow.

Shafaat said she chose Ohio State because, “The opportunities, resources and facilities at all levels — university, college, department — could not be beat.”

Her research combines spectroscopy, theory and bioinorganic chemistry to study biologically relevant energy conversion reactions. This work centers on studying metalloenzymes that carry out valuable reactions important to alternative energy sources and clean energy storage.

Using nature as her inspiration, Shafaat is trying to harness the advantages of bioinorganic platforms. “Our goal is to get molecular-level insight into the mechanisms of catalysis to guide design of increasingly efficient and robust catalysts for application.”

Her research group uses a diverse array of scientific tools: molecular biology, protein expression, chemical synthesis, metalloprotein design, spectroscopy — steady state and time-resolved optical techniques, along with visible and ultraviolet resonance Raman spectroscopy — and quantum chemical calculations.

Simply put, “We want to make hydrogen from water,” Shafaat said. “If we can see how it is produced in nature — if we can figure out the mechanisms involved — we can build catalysts of our own.”

“Many researchers are making molecules right now,” Shafaat said, “but our group is taking a new approach. We want to understand how it works on a detailed molecular level — because protons are so small, it is difficult to ‘see’ them. But if we can see the mechanisms of how these processes happen, we can make it better. For example, if we can see how these systems decompose, we can prevent that from happening.”

Shafaat has set up a new laser system that will help her group better look at the proteins that are catalysts for hydrogen production. “The great tunability of this laser system gives us a unique advantage. It allows us to establish ourselves in terms of what we want to do, what we want to ask and defining the kinds of answers we are looking for,” she said.

“Raman spectroscopy is not an easy technique, but information it can give us is very important. We will be looking at different structures at many different wavelengths and be guided by theory to help us figure out where the right place to look is. The computational work is not 100 percent perfect; we will need to do some benchmarking to be able to isolate where we need to look to get a good description.“

Shafaat is excited about the expanded research capabilities that the grant makes possible, including being able to recruit more graduate students.

She is also happy about the grant’s outreach component, which will give her the opportunity to introduce underrepresented groups of local high school students and Ohio State undergraduates to hands-on research. She is already actively recruiting students to begin work in her laboratory this coming summer.

“I want to convince young students that science is not about memorization, but about asking the big questions. Good science is looking at problems and asking hard questions, trial and error, trouble-shooting, problem-solving.”

She vows that these students, who will be paid out of her grant, will not be doing “cookbook” projects, but real science, working closely with herself, her three graduate students and the three undergraduates currently in her lab.

—Sandi Rutkowski