New endowment will help UO chemist track down pollutants

Darren Johnson at work in his Universitiy of Oregon lab

In the lab of UO chemist Darren Johnson, a key focus is synthesizing molecules so they work like magic — detecting and removing contaminants from the environment, for example.

A challenge is understanding the fundamental chemistry involved in selectively recognizing contaminants so that the new molecules will find and bind to them. Johnson already has worked with UO colleagues, industry and undergraduate and graduate students on advancements in water-filtration techniques and in monitoring nitrate levels produced by fertilizers on agricultural fields.

Efforts in his lab, with a new source of help, are expanding.

Johnson is the first recipient of the Bradshaw and Holzapfel Research Professorship in Transformational Science and Mathematics. The endowed professorship was established by UO biology professor William Bradshaw and researcher Christina Holzapfel in the UO Institute of Ecology and Evolution.

Johnson will hold the professorship, effective July 1, for five years.

“I am humbled to be honored as the first of what will become a growing community of endowed professors in transformational science and mathematics,” Johnson said. “I am thankful for the incredible generosity and vision of Chris Holzapfel and Bill Bradshaw in setting up this endowment to facilitate UO research efforts at the intersection of fundamental and applied science and math.”

Johnson, a professor in the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry and associate director of the Materials Science Institute, added that “the amazing students and postdocs in my lab – past and present – are the true recipients of this distinction.”

The new professorship, Johnson said, will provide a source of flexible funds to make important strategic investments for his UO lab to enhance the reach of his group’s fundamental research.

“We will continue our work to develop design rules to target anions, which are negatively charged chemical species,” he said. “For instance, nitrate and phosphate anions are vital nutrients for agricultural activity, yet design rules to develop molecules and materials for their selective detection and removal require further research.”

The goal will be to turn fundamental discoveries into new, low-cost, deployable sensor devices that can monitor these chemicals to improve environmental sustainability in industrial and agricultural activities.

"In the case of tracking these anions in cell studies, these are usually species that are vital for life, but their concentrations and locations in cells are not well understood," he said. "Similarly, to address fertilizers and nutrients in the environment, we'd like to sense these species better so that we can optimize fertilizer application and improve agricultural efficiency."

At the same time, he added, improvements in selective binding can be applied to efforts to remove contaminants in the environment that threaten human health.

Holzapfel and Bradshaw, who have studied mosquitos in environmentally controlled rooms in their lab in the Institute of Ecology and Evolution for more than 30 years, said they established the endowed professorship as a way to give back to the UO and foster “a community of scholars.”

Future recipients of the professorship will come in a rotation through the departments of biology, physics, mathematics and computer and information science.

—By Jim Barlow, University Communications