Artisanal Organic Chemistry: Chris Cramer Joins Real Scientists

Marie Bourgeois has brought a wonderful sense of humour and erudition to the complex issues of toxicology and public health this past week at Real Scientists. Many thanks to her for her excellent week of tweeting.


From the East Coast of the US we now move our gaze to the American Midwest. Keeping with the chemical theme, we’d like to introduce you to our next curator, Prof Chris Cramer (@ChemProfCramer), Distinguished McKnight and University Teaching Professor and Associate Dean for Academic Affairs at the University of Minnesota. Chris is a chemist who works in energy technology and sustainable chemistry and will be talking to us about life as an academic, Dean and a researcher into the basic science of solar cells, chemical synthesis, and much more!  We asked Chris our usual questions, and here he is in his own words.


Distinguished Teaching - Morse

I loved Math as a kid and went to College to be a math major and a pre-medical student. My second year, I had a wonderful Organic Chemistry instructor (Professor C. David Gutsche) and I added Chemistry as a major, too, ending up doing undergraduate research with him for 2.5 years. In my last year, I had acceptances from med school and grad schools, and I decided I was better with round-bottom flasks than with sick people. So…


Why did you choose your current field/what keeps you there?

Funny you should ask… After my undergrad research experience, I chose a synthetic organic chemistry path for my Ph.D. (with Scott Denmark), much to the dismay of my P. Chem. advisor at Washington University. Near the end of my time at Illinois, my math background re-asserted itself, and with Scott’s support, I turned my interests more to theoretical chemistry/molecular modeling. (As my next job was 4 years as an active-duty military officer, and as it is far friendlier to work with chemicals of interest to the military as a theorist compared to an experimentalist, this was a fortuitous development…) What keeps me in theory/modeling is my fascination with that field’s ability to provide microscopic insight into chemical structure and reactivity, often at a level of detail that remains extraordinarily challenging for experiment to provide (although one might argue that it’s just speculation until experiment CAN confirm it — that’s an ontological question…)


My primary research interests are: Theoretical characterization of small-molecule activation at transition-metal centers; Modeling catalysis to advance sustainable chemistry and chemical processes; Molecular and material phenomena associated with solar energy devices; Modeling remediation of environmental contaminants and chemical warfare agents, and; Development and application of condensed-phase quantum chemical models.

As a dean I do… dean things (not really science, so let’s leave it there).


Motivation: why should the lay public care about your research/work?

Well, Chemistry IS the Central Science, you know.

But, seriously, humanity as a whole faces an energy shortage — if we make a significant breakthrough in energy, it will have a staggering impact on human civilization. Many of my research interests revolve around sustainability, which, beyond looking at ways to better harvest solar energy (and turn it into solar fuels), also includes lower-energy processes to make important chemicals (through catalysis), and ways to make high-value molecules/materials in a sustainable way.

I’m also very interested in understanding how best to effect the remediation of hazardous chemicals, including chemical weapons, which is an increasingly significant issue as our environment becomes contaminated with an increasing number of potentially dangerous chemicals of anthropogenic origin.


As an associate dean for my College, and a former leader of faculty governance for my University, I spend a fair amount of time thinking about the scope of higher education in general. I’m also interested in communicating with the public about science and higher education (or I wouldn’t be doing this gig, I suppose!) I’m a father of 3 (ranging in age from 17 to 22) and husband to a spouse — those are treasured obligations…


Any interesting hobbies you’d like to share?

I run (well, about 8-minute miles, so perhaps I more lumber), I sing and whistle with a staggering lack of shame. I like puzzles. I love to cook (a lasting holdover from my synthetic chemistry days). I consider the fermentation (and possibly subsequent distillation) of grains and fruits to be an ancient human accomplishment warranting regular experiment and celebration.


North of Lake Superior, in Minnesota, is the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness — it is a staggering expanse of natural beauty within which motors of all kinds are forbidden. To be deep inside, in a canoe with a loved one, on crystal blue water, a loon afloat nearby, a juvenile moose on the shore, jaw dripping with lake fronds? That’s the ideal day off…


Please welcome Chris Cramer to Real Scientists!

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