North Texas Daily

Chemistry professor receives Early Career Award and grant money for research in molecular crystals

Chemistry professor receives Early Career Award and grant money for research in molecular crystals

Chemistry professor receives Early Career Award and grant money for research in molecular crystals
September 11
12:00 2023

Assistant professor of chemistry Omar Valsson has received the 2023 Early Career Award from the Department of Energy, along with $875,000 in grant money, for his research into molecular crystals.

Valsson said his research focuses on polymorphism, which is the idea that the same molecule can exist in different crystal configurations. These configurations, called polymorphs, can affect things like the solubility and stability of molecules. Valsson’s research has practical applications in the pharmaceutical industry because the formation of polymorphs in the molecules of a drug can determine the drug’s effectiveness.

Part of researching polymorphs is running simulations to see what causes them to change. However, this research is difficult because of the current limitations of these simulations.

“The timescales that you can access are limited,” Valsson said. “Maybe up to a millisecond at most. Many of these phenomena happen on a longer timescale.”

The research Valsson is working on aims to overcome these limitations and make better simulations. He plans to do this by using physics-based modeling and machine learning try and improve on current sampling methods.

Valsson sent in a pre-proposal of his research in response to a call sent out by the Department of Energy for the Early Career Award. Once that was approved, he sent in a full proposal of his research in March, where it was evaluated and competed against other research projects from across the country. He found out he was selected for the award earlier this summer.

Valsson was one of 93 total recipients of the award, and one of only three recipients in the state of Texas.

“It’s very prestigious,” Valsson said. “It’s really excellent. I was kind of ecstatic about it.”

The $875,000 in research money will be sent to Valsson’s team over the next five years. Valsson is currently working with a team of five graduate students. For this specific project, a subgroup of two graduate students are going to be working on it and will be paid with the grant money.

Valsson also hopes to involve one undergraduate student on his team and is going to start looking this semester to find one.

Pradip Si, a third-year chemistry graduate student, has been working with Valsson on his research for two semesters, and is one of the two graduate students on Valsson’s team working on the project.

“Generally, we run the simulations,” Si said. “We have our system in the lab, and also we have a super computing center here to run our simulations.”

Valsson has been teaching at the university since January 2022. Before starting at the university, he was the leader of a research group in Germany from 2017 to 2021.

While scientific research is an international effort, the research system in the U.S. works differently than that in Germany, said Legrande Slaughter, a professor of Inorganic Chemistry and chair of the university’s Chemistry Department. Everything from how researchers get money to how graduate programs are structured is completely different in Germany.

German research also tends to be more hierarchical than in the U.S. Slaughter said research positions in the U.S. are typically more independent than those in Germany and give their researchers more freedom and resources to do what they want.

Slaughter said this difference in independence can be shocking for researchers who come to the U.S. from other countries, like Valsson did.

“We were lucky to find him willing to move across the Atlantic Ocean,” Slaughter said. “He had a position over there where he was somewhat independent, but the position that we offered here is a lot more independent.”

The Early Career Award is the first award Valsson has received since moving to the U.S.

“This award is a very big deal for him and for the department,” Slaughter said. “It shows that there’s a branch of the federal government that considers his research so important that they’re willing to invest a big sum of money to support it.”

Slaughter said the grant not only provides money for the research, but also helps Valsson build his reputation and proves that his research is important.

“They try to find people that they think are really going to start a groundbreaking new area of research,” Slaughter said. “People whose careers are really going to take off. They’re going to become major players in the research area.”

Featured Image: Assistant professor of chemistry Omar Valsson stands in front of a high-performance cluster for molecular crystal research on Sep. 1, 2023. Makayla Brown

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Colin Fowler

Colin Fowler

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