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  • 01/31/18

    Professor Tonks selected for McKnight Land-Grant Professorship

Professor Ian Tonks is a recipient of the University of Minnesota McKnight Land-Grant Professorship. This award is designed to advance the careers of assistant professors at a crucial point in their professional lives, and nine faculty members received the honor this year.

The two-year appointment, 2018-2020, includes a research grant of $50,000. The grant will enable Tonks to create organometallic catalysts, which are molecules that promote or accelerate chemical reactions, based on earth-abundant, non-toxic chemicals like titanium. His goal is to create environmentally friendly, sustainable, and practical chemical reactions that can be used in the manufacture of pharmaceuticals and biodegradable plastics.

Professor Ian Tonks' research focuses on the use of titanium as an important research catalyst.

Tonks' innovative uses of titanium goes against long-held conventional understanding of how the metal behaves in reactions. Typically, titanium does not participate in electron-sharing events needed to make and break chemical bonds in catalytic reactions, and requires specialized handling techniques due to its air and water sensitivity. Professor Tonks' research is showing not only that titanium can participate in oxidative catalysis, but also that it can be used with simple experimental setups and starting materials to do powerful and practical reactions. 

Professor Ian Tonks made several breakthroughs in titanium catalysis.

He has already made several breakthroughs in titanium catalysis. As one example, he discovered a titanium-catalyzed reaction that allows for the rapid and efficient conversion of azo compounds, common organic dyes, into pyrroles, a building block required for the synthesis of many important drug molecules such as Lipitor®. This work was published in Nature Chemistry and highlighted in Synform, an organic chemistry journal. Tonks will also present this research at the 2018 Organometallics Gordon Conference.

In addition to his research, Tonks is an outstanding teacher in the classroom and the laboratory. He is committed to implementing active-learning techniques in the classroom. He has participated in several national faculty development initiatives dedicated to improving teaching such as the American Chemical Society (ACS) Cottrell Scholars New Faculty Workshop. He is working with Professor Jeffrey Byers at Boston College to build the National Collaborative Scholars Association, an intercollegiate organic chemistry competition. 

Professor Tonks also serves as a mentor and adviser to post-doctoral associates, and graduate and undergraduate students. This includes guiding and providing teaching experiences to students involved in the Mentorship Program for Aspiring Chemistry Teachers program. He is a mentor for undergraduate students in the College of Science & Engineering, which has included volunteering to teach CSE 1001, a freshman seminar providing early stage mentorship to undergraduate science and engineering majors in order to improve student outcomes and the retention of underrepresented students in the sciences. In May 2017, Tonks led 10 first-year students on a study abroad trip to France to learn about alternative energy in Europe.

Safety is also important to Professor Tonks who serves on the Department of Chemistry's Safety Committee. He initiated an annual department-wide peer review of laboratory safe operating procedures. He recently launched a new inorganic safety website, The Safety Net, with Professor Alexander Miller at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. He has also presented a seminar on chemical safety and communication at the national American Chemical Society meeting.

Tonks has received prestigious accolades and awards, including the Thieme Chemistry Journal Award in 2018, Alfred P. Sloan Research Fellowship in Chemistry in 2017, National Institutes of Health Outstanding Investigator Award in 2016, and ACS New Investigator Program grant in 2014. He is the corresponding author on 19 publications, which includes a 2016 Best Paper Award from the journal Inorganica Chimica Acta, and 1 patent.

"Professor Tonks is a talented, successful, and ambitious scientist who is already becoming a major player in the important area of environmentally relevant metal catalyzed reaction development, said Department Head David Blank. "He has also demonstrated excellence in mentorship and teaching as well as service to our students, department, college, and university."

Tonks joined the Department of Chemistry in 2013, after serving as a post-doctoral scholar at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, working with Professor Clark Landis. In 2011, he earned his doctorate in organometallic chemistry at the California Institute of Technology under the tutelage of Professor John Bercaw. He received his bachelor's degree in chemistry from Columbia University while working with Professor Gerard "Ged" Parkin.