Alexander Spokoyny, a UCLA assistant professor of chemistry and biochemistry and member of the California NanoSystems Institute, is among 24 early-career scientists nationally to be selected as a 2018 Cottrell Scholar.

The Cottrell Scholar honors exceptional early career teacher-scholars in chemistry, physics and astronomy.

Spokoyny will receive $100,000 to support his research on nanomaterials based on inorganic clusters. In addition, he will use part of the award to support the UCLA Prison Education Program, of which he is a faculty team member. The program, launched in 2016, focuses on improving literacy in science, technology, engineering and mathematics among Southern California prison inmates in the California Institute for Women in Corona and the Barry J. Nidorf Juvenile Hall in Sylmar.

“Alex’s intellect, experimental insight, and fearlessness have enabled him to forge a fundamentally new research direction spanning chemistry, materials science and chemical biology in less than three years,” said Catherine Clarke, chair of UCLA’s department of chemistry and biochemistry, in her nomination letter supporting Spokoyny’s selection for the award.

Spokoyny takes an interdisciplinary approach, focusing on challenges in chemistry, biology, medicine and materials science. He and his research team establish fundamentally new synthetic avenues and develop an extensive and versatile synthetic toolbox, including multifunctional, atomically precise, nano-sized molecules. His research reveals novel and potentially useful solutions to important problems in science and technology, including catalysis, energy storage, and protein recognition and labeling.

Spokoyny is senior author of research published online recently in the journal Nature Materials. He and colleagues have devised a new way to create molecular interconnections that can give a certain class of materials important new properties, including improving their ability to catalyze chemical reactions or harvest energy from light.

The team — which includes researchers from the U.S. Department of Energy’s Argonne National Laboratory, UC Santa Barbara, Purdue University and the University of Oregon — has developed a method to create linked networks of metal oxides that could have interesting catalytic or electronic properties. The key to the formation of these metal oxide networks is boron, which can be made to act as a glue that connects a metal oxide web.

“This glue has the ability to be a key component of the entire reactive system, changing the properties that the metal oxides had on their own,” Spokoyny said. Metal oxides are of interest to scientists because of their unique electronic and chemical properties.

In the future, the researchers seek to design a way to create precisely tailored materials by perfecting how interconnecting clusters of boron “glue” are interspersed within the metal oxide.

“If we can stitch in these molecules exactly where we want them to be, it will give us a powerful ability to make hybrid materials with a wide range of uses,” Spokoyny said.

Funding sources for this research include the U.S. Department of Energy Office of Basic Energy Sciences, division of chemical sciences, biosciences and geosciences; Alfred P. Sloan Foundation and National Science Foundation.

Spokoyny was awarded a 2017 research fellowship from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, awarded to early-career scientists and scholars who are the “rising stars of the academic community” and who are “transforming their fields and opening up entirely new research horizons,” said Paul Joskow, former president of the Sloan Foundation.