Miles Johnson, '09

Chemistry professor recognized with $500,000 NSF grant

February 12, 2021


The National Science Foundation has awarded Miles Johnson, assistant professor of chemistry, more than $500,000 in grant support for his research on metal catalysts and developing new chemical compounds. 

Johnson has received an NSF Early Career Development Program Award — also called a CAREER award. The grant supports early career faculty who have the potential to serve as academic role models in research and education and to lead advances in the mission of their department or organization.

“CAREER grants are rarely awarded to faculty in undergraduate science departments,” said Carol Parish, Floyd D. and Elisabeth S. Gottwald professor of chemistry and associate provost for academic integration. “They are very prestigious. Miles is a consummate teacher-scholar who embodies precisely what the NSF looks for when selecting a recipient.”

Johnson’s research focuses on metal catalysts, particularly nickel. These catalysts are routinely used in the development of new chemical compounds to create medicines.

“Cross-coupling reactions allow chemists to stitch together small fragments of molecules into large pharmaceuticals,” Johnson said. “Importantly, these reactions are often very selective and circumvent challenges associated with more traditional chemical reactions. In fact, the 2010 Nobel Prize in Chemistry was awarded for this technology since it is now ubiquitous in making carbon–carbon bonds, the framework for most medicines.”

Johnson said the most important aspect of the research is the ability to use easily synthesized and affordable catalysts for these reactions. 

“The catalysts are often extremely expensive,” he said. “We hope to make catalysts that are more accessible by making them easier to synthesize and by having them based around affordable metals.”

More broadly, Johnson is excited about the general science applications and educational opportunities supported by this grant, particularly for undergraduate research students.

“I believe that everyone deserves a scientific education that promotes critical thinking and provides a foundation for informed decision-making surrounding science, whether it be in the kitchen or the voting booth,” Johnson said. “The threats of a global pandemic and worldwide climate change highlight more than ever the need to train the next generation of scientists and promote scientific literacy among everyone.”

The grant will support a research and education plan that fosters an inclusive and engaging scientific experience. Johnson will provide mentoring opportunities and undergraduate research.

Johnson graduated from the University of Richmond in 2009 with a bachelor of science in chemistry and completed his Ph.D. at the University of California, Berkeley. He became a UR faculty member in 2016. He has also received funding to support his research from the American Chemical Society and Jeffress Memorial Trust.

Note: The photo above was taken prior to the COVID-19 pandemic.