Croasdale Award: Matt Cain

On June 15, 2012 by Grad Forum

The Hannah Croasdale Award for academic excellence is awarded annually to the graduating PhD recipient who best exemplifies the qualities of a scholar. This individual possesses personal qualities of intellectual curiosity, dedication, and commitment to the pursuit of new knowledge and to teaching, as well as a sense of social responsibility to the community of scholars. The award recipient is selected by The Dean of Graduate Studies.

Since January, Matt Cain has been conducting postdoctoral research at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) under the guidance of Prof. Dick Schrock. A graduating doctoral student in Chemistry, Matt was selected as one of this year’s recipients of the Hannah Croasdale Award because of the excellence of his thesis research at Dartmouth, as well as his involvement in undergraduate teaching.

At MIT, Matt is researching how dinitrogen (N2) can be reduced to ammonia (NH3) through the addition of protons and electrons using a Molybdenum-based catalyst. While Matt has only been conducting this research for six months, the practical applications of reducing dinitrogen into ammonia are far-reaching: in its gaseous state, nitrogen is readily available in the Earth’s atmosphere, and ammonia is one of the basic ingredients in the production of fertilizer. Thus, the long-term goals of Matt’s postdoctoral studies are to find a cheap method to produce basic fertilizers for agriculture using nitrogen as a feedstock, which would help a number of third-world countries grow enough food to feed larger portions of their populations.

“The end goal of my postdoctoral research is to alleviate world hunger by finding a cheap, efficient way to manufacture basic fertilizers,” explains Matt. “While I doubt this large-scale problem will be solved in the foreseeable future, this research is addressing the issue head on, and I have confidence that my efforts will positively impact a number of remote, agrarian communities in the coming years.”

A former member of Prof. David Glueck’s lab, Matt’s doctoral research at Dartmouth addressed some fundamental problems in chemistry.  His doctoral dissertation, titled Cu(I)-Catalyzed P-C Bond Formation and the Synthesis of C3– and C1-Symmetric P-Stereogenic Triphosphine Ligands, investigated how copper–a cheap, environmentally-friendly metal—could catalyze the synthesis of chiral ligands, which are used by pharmaceutical companies to manufacture more “pure” drugs with fewer side effects.

“The chemical structures of some prescription drugs give them the potential to effect a patient’s body in more than one way. A famous example of this is the drug Thalidomide, which was prescribed to treat morning sickness in the late 50s. However, by the early 60s, Thalidomide was found to cause birth defects, and was withdrawn from the US market in 1961—years later, a connection between the chemical structure of Thalidomide and these birth defects was discovered. Thus, the graduate research I conducted at Dartmouth seeks to make drugs more pure, and helps reduce the number of potential side effects caused by their use.”

During his time at Dartmouth, Matt worked as a teaching assistant for five classes including several of the school’s general chemistry courses—Chemistry 5, Chemistry 6, Chemistry 10 (an Honors course), as well as Chemistry  64 for two terms.  Like all chemistry graduate students, Matt completed each of the training courses required by his department before setting foot in the classroom.

“I really enjoyed working as a Teaching Assistant,” says Matt. “In the classroom I explained a number of scientific concepts to undergraduates, and helped them conduct research experiments. While I finished my teaching obligations early in my doctoral career, working as a Teaching Assistant really defined my time at Dartmouth.”

Originally from Congers, NY, Matt received a B.S. in Chemistry from SUNY Geneseo in 2007, and started his doctoral studies at Dartmouth the summer after he graduated from Geneseo. As an undergraduate, Matt examined the luminescent properties of hetrobimeallic metal complexes, which are used in the production of Light Emitting Diodes (LEDs).

Congratulations, Matt!

by Wesley Whitaker
photo by Tennile Sunday

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