• Credit: Bob Paz
03/05/2013 08:57:06

John Bercaw Wins 2012 Tolman Medal in Chemistry

The Southern California Section of the American Chemical Society (SCALACS) has selected John E. Bercaw, the Centennial Professor of Chemistry at Caltech, to receive the 2012 Tolman Medal.

According to SCALACS, the Tolman Medal honors chemists for "achievements in fundamental studies; achievements in chemical technology; significant contributions to chemical education; or outstanding leadership in science on a national level." Awardees need not be residents of Southern California, but their award-related accomplishments must have been made here.

"I am very honored to have been selected to receive the Tolman Medal," says Bercaw. "Awards such as the Tolman Medal help to inspire chemists to explore new areas of research and to help their fellow scientists."

Bercaw's research group at Caltech focuses on the development of new catalysts for producing polymers, fuels, and commodity chemicals. His group works in the area of organotransition metal chemistry and prepares new compounds, investigates their chemical reactivity, and defines the fundamental mechanisms by which they react. Bercaw's research has led to new catalysts that have been adopted by industry for producing new and improved polyethylenes, as well as to catalysts for upgrading plentiful molecules such as methane or other light hydrocarbons to produce gasoline or diesel fuel.

"As our fossil fuel resources dwindle, it is imperative that we find more efficient and greener ways to convert them into transportation fuels and materials such as plastics," says Bercaw.

Bercaw received his BS in chemistry from North Carolina State University in 1967 and a PhD in chemistry from the University of Michigan in 1971. He originally came to Caltech as an Arthur Amos Noyes Research Fellow in Chemistry in 1972. He was appointed assistant professor of chemistry in 1974, associate professor in 1977, and professor in 1979. Named Shell Distinguished Professor in 1985, then Centennial Professor in 1993, he served as executive officer for chemistry in the Division of Chemistry and Chemical Engineering from 1999 to 2002. Bercaw is a member of the National Academy of Sciences and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

The Tolman Medal is named in honor of Richard C. Tolman, who became professor of physical chemistry and mathematical physics at Caltech in 1921 and later dean of the graduate school. The list of previous Tolman Medal winners includes Caltech scientists Harry B. Gray, Linus C. Pauling, Jacqueline K. Barton, Ahmed Zewail, and Robert H. Grubbs.

Written by Brian Bell