May 29, 1997
Vol. 16, No. 18

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    Quantrell award: Gregory Hillhouse

    Associate Professor in Chemistry Gregory Hillhouse, Associate Professor in Chemistry, is admired for his classroom teaching in inorganic chemistry, and even more for his mentoring of undergraduates in his research laboratory. More than 20 former students of Hillhouse's independently wrote letters nominating him for the Quantrell Award based on their laboratory experience.

    "The most satisfactory thing about my job is seeing someone who doesn't necessarily know if they want to be a chemist and seeing their interest sparked," said Hillhouse, a University faculty member since 1983 and former Director of Undergraduate Studies/Undergraduate Counselor for the Chemistry Department.

    "Of course, it's also very rewarding to have a graduate student who goes on to become famous or get a good faculty position somewhere, but graduate students already know what they want to do when they come here. I feel like I have a little bit more impact on the lives of undergraduates," he said.

    Hillhouse's popularity and effectiveness are undoubtedly related to his view of the undergraduates who work in his laboratory. They are, he said, an integral part of the research team.

    "I give them their own project that's associated with what a graduate student or post-doc is working on, typically a synthetic or mechanistic problem," said Hillhouse, whose research focuses on inorganic and organometallic chemistry. "They start in their second or third year, so that by the time they graduate they have two or three years' experience, including summers."

    The results? Young scientists with bright futures, said colleague Clifford Kubiak, the Robert W. Wheland Visiting Professor in Chemistry. "Greg somehow has attracted and mentored young scientists who have shown themselves to be some of the most promising people in chemistry that many of us have seen in a long time.

    "He has a way of showing undergraduates what the scientific process is all about -- and it's not just doing experiments. Anyone can go in a laboratory and start mixing up chemicals and make something -- chemists are really good at making things. But a real scientist starts asking questions, and the quality of the questions depends on what you know and how critically you've thought about other people's work.

    "People who have worked with Greg as undergraduates are way beyond their years in what I would call scientific maturity," Kubiak said.

    Hillhouse currently has two undergraduates working in his laboratory: Jared Linebarger and Jon Malinoski, both third-year chemistry majors who are also starters on the men's soccer team. Each student works on a research project associated with one of Hillhouse's two main areas of study: nitrous oxide (N2O) and nitric oxide (NO).

    Nitrous oxide is a ubiquitous molecule implicated as a greenhouse gas -- which destroys ozone in the Earth's protective ozone layer -- and is produced in vast quantities as a byproduct of the nylon industry. Researchers are studying how it can be used in chemically useful reactions rather than vented to the atmosphere. Hillhouse is studying how nitrous oxide can be used to selectively oxidize a carbon-metal bond in organometallic complexes, a major problem in synthetic chemistry.

    Nitric oxide is a signaling agent in mammalian biology, playing a key role in muscle relaxation, among other things. Both the neutral molecule, NO, and its cationic (NO+) and anionic (NO-) cousins are thought to be important in biological systems. Hillhouse is interested in synthesizing a stable complex of NO- with a metal ion; without such complexation, the anion degrades at anything above -150 degrees C. A stable complex would allow biological chemists to better study and understand nitric oxide's physiological properties.

    One of Hillhouse's students, Malinoski, is embarking on a new project, developing a catalyst to use nitrous oxide in place of oxygen in fuel cells to produce electricity for automobiles and other applications. Unlike oxygen, nitrous oxide is not explosive. The byproducts are simply water and nitrogen gas.

    So far, the chemistry works, but the catalyst they have developed is water soluble and slowly dissolves as the reaction proceeds, Hillhouse said. They're still working on it. "This is a fascinating area for potential practical applications," he said.

    Given the sentiments of his former students, the same might be said of his laboratory.

    -- Diana Steele