University of Houston Chemist Devises Effective Methods for Creating Useful Compounds

University of Houston Chemist Devises Effective Methods for Creating Useful Compounds
The Welch Foundation Honors ‘Rising Star’ with $100,000 Hackerman Award

Olafs DaugulisThe Welch Foundation named Olafs Daugulis, associate professor of chemistry at the University of Houston (UH), as the 2013 recipient of the Norman Hackerman Award in Chemical Research. The award pays tribute to Daugulis for his groundbreaking contributions in transition metal-based catalysis, recognizing his leadership, creativity and commitment to science as demonstrated through his research and teaching.

Working on the border between organic and organometallic chemistry, Daugulis primarily explores the functionalization of carbon-hydrogen (C-H) bonds. The research is fundamentally and technologically important in that it advances the boundaries of C-H activation chemistry by providing catalytic methods useful in the synthetic arena.

“Dr. Daugulis embodies the intent of the Hackerman Award – a scientist who at an early stage of his career has already developed an outstanding record of creative and productive work that advances our knowledge of important areas of chemistry,” said Wilhelmina E. (Beth) Robertson, chair of The Welch Foundation. “His research addresses fundamental questions in synthetic organic methodology that has illuminated key issues and that ultimately may lead to applications that benefit society. At the same time, he is an outstanding teacher guiding and inspiring the next generation researchers.”

Daugulis develops new reaction methodology to reduce the number of steps required to transform C-H bond-containing substances into new compounds. His methods can afford synthetic targets in higher yields with fewer steps and less reaction waste. These new methods may ultimately prove useful in efficient preparation of drugs or precursors for new polymers in industry. In conjunction with researchers at the University of Chicago, he also has contributed to the development of a new and efficient methane oxidation system.

Making synthetic schemes more efficient is one of the unsolved areas of chemistry, and Daugulis says he enjoys the intellectual puzzle, putting the pieces together to develop new reactions.

“Fundamental research is intellectually more interesting to me than applied work. I love to come to work every day and think about new things,” Daugulis said. “The Welch Foundation has played an important role in letting me freely explore new directions.”

Daugulis says that The Welch Foundation offers opportunities he might not otherwise have by supporting his basic chemical research. As a result, he can look at making fundamental discoveries that may lead to practical applications not entirely obvious at this stage in the research.

“Dr. Daugulis is a highly insightful, incredibly productive and remarkably creative scientist,” said Marye Anne Fox, the Foundation’s Scientific Advisory Board chair. “He has made groundbreaking contributions in C-H bond activation reactions. His work is important in that it has pushed back the boundaries of synthetic methods chemistry by fundamental advances, as well as practical methods to carry out useful organic transformations.”

Daugulis’ impressive record of contributions to C-H bond activation and cross-coupling chemistry has been lauded for its creativity and practicality. Many of his 43 independent papers have been published in the field’s leading journals and are highly cited, including one now more than 400 times.

“Olafs’ research is well deserving of this great honor,” said Mark A. Smith, dean of UH’s College of Natural Sciences and Mathematics. “He is a true asset to UH’s chemistry research program and an excellent mentor and teacher to many of our graduate and undergraduate students.”

The researcher joined the University of Houston faculty in 2003 after postdoctoral work at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill. He earned his undergraduate degree at Riga Technical University in Latvia and his Ph.D. at University of Wisconsin-Madison. His work has been recognized with the Synthesis-Synlett Journal Award, National Science Foundation Career Award (declined in favor of National Institutes of Health funding), Alfred P. Sloan Research Fellowship, Camille Dreyfus Teacher-Scholar Award, UH Excellence in Research and Scholarship Award, and UH Teaching Excellence Award. He has been invited to share his research through talks at more than 50 international forums, both academic and industrial.

He is married to artist Linda Treija.

The Hackerman Award is named in honor of Norman Hackerman, a noted scientist and former long-time chair of The Welch Foundation’s Scientific Advisory Board. The $100,000 award is presented annually when warranted to scientists who are early in their careers and conducting basic research in chemistry in Texas. This is the first time it has been bestowed upon a UH faculty member.

For more than a half century, The Welch Foundation has been supporting basic chemical research in Texas through grants to researchers at colleges and universities, support for chemistry departments at smaller colleges and universities, funding of endowed chairs, an annual chemical research conference and a summer program for high school students, among other initiatives. The Foundation also bestows the prestigious Welch Award each year for achievement in basic research in chemistry to benefit humankind.
For more information on the Foundation and a list of previous Hackerman Award recipients, please visit

- Megan Mastal, Welch Foundation, and Lisa Merkl, UH Communication