Adventures on the scientific frontier


Explorations always seem more tidy in retrospect. Take, for example, the expedition of Lewis and Clark. From our perspective, they blazed a trail across the American West. But if you read their journals, a different picture emerges.

In their own writings they often seem to be lost. They were fortunate to find a competent guide and translator in Sacagawea. And in the end, they did find the Columbia River, which carried them all the way to the Pacific Ocean. Scientific explorations are similar. On the frontiers of science, it’s easy to get lost. Rigorous hypotheses, like compasses, can provide a sense of direction. And guides (sometimes unheralded) can help out along the way. Crick and Watson found their Sacagawea in Rosalind Franklin.

In this feature, we profile two College of Chemistry researchers who have trekked at the frontiers of science and found the unexpected. Omar Yaghi has created a new field in chemistry, reticular chemistry. He is best known for his application of metal organic frameworks (MOFs) to energy problems like the storage of clean-burning methane and hydrogen. Along the way, Yaghi has found a way to help solve another looming problem—water shortages. He has discovered a way to use MOFs to enhance the efficiency of atmospheric water generators, potentially allowing them to provide clean water to millions of people living in arid climates.

David Graves has spent much of his career doing fundamental research on low-temperature plasmas and their application to semiconductor etching and surface treatments. But in the last decade he has turned his attention to the startling and unexpected biomedical applications of plasmas, including wound healing and cancer therapy.

Research, like life, doesn’t always turn out the way you plan. For Yaghi and Graves the discoveries off the beaten path have been part of the adventure.