January 11, 2012

New professor profile: Helen Hoyt

The Knox Student (TKS): Where did you go to school?

Helen Hoyt (HH): I got my graduate degree at UC Berkeley in California, and for undergrad I went to Knox with the class of 2001. I majored in chemistry here.

TKS: What were your academic interests at Knox and Berkeley?

HH: At Knox, I started out thinking I would be a creative writing and music major. But I took organic chemistry, and I just got really excited by the idea that the physical world can still surprise us. So I started switching over to chemistry and never looked back.

At Berkeley, I specialized in organometallic chemistry. Basically that idea is that you use transition metals to make things that are useful for applications in drug discovery and material science.

TKS: What are some of the applications you came up with in your research?

HH: What I work on is pretty basic science, and the applications are a sort of bigger, down the road things. In graduate school, I worked on petroleum products and trying to functionalize them in a useful way for starting materials for drug discovery and things like that.

What we do now with hydrocarbons is we burn them, which is okay for energy, but it’s not great for the environment. It keeps the cost of starting materials high if you want to make a new drug. So, using something that is really abundant for a much better purpose is kind of what I worked on in graduate school.

Here, what I’m hoping to do is really focus on an aspect of green chemistry called atom economy. That is essentially just making products using all of the atoms in the starting material so that you don’t have any waste. Basically, you use everything you start with, so you don’t have to have all of these things that end up in rivers and streams.

TKS: What brought you back to Knox?

HH: That’s a good question. It was sort of serendipity, I think. I was looking for a job at a small liberal arts college, which is actually why I went to graduate school. It’s a really good balance of being able to pursue new science and new research, but also to have the freedom to pursue what I want, and also to engage with young people and stay active in an academic way. And the timing just worked out great for me to come back.

TKS: What are your teaching interests at Knox?

HH: I’ll mostly be teaching general chemistry. The upper level classes that I’ll focus on are electives. In the last year of work, physical organic chemistry is the one I’m most excited about. That focuses on why and how reactions happen. It’s kind of a capstone course that combines physical chemistry and organic together to figure out why and how things happen.

TKS: What are your plans for the future?

HH: I hope to stay here for a while. This glove box that we got here is kind of unique. It’s a new trend that has been going on across the country for small, liberal arts colleges to have access to this. … It allows us to explore all of those things that aren’t possible when there is oxygen and water present.

I’m really hoping to find some new catalysts to study. We’re going to start with iron because it’s abundant, inexpensive and non-toxic. There are a lot of new frontiers there. Iron rusts outside, so people haven’t explored it as much as they have with other things that are air-stable, like platinum.

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