Knowles Named the 2023 ACS EJ Corey Awardee

By Wendy Plump
Tuesday, Sep. 13, 2022

Robert Knowles, a professor in the Department of Chemistry, is the recipient of the 2023 ACS Elias J. Corey Award for Outstanding Original Contribution in Organic Synthesis by a Young Investigator. 

The award is presented annually in recognition of original, insightful work of exceptional merit that has had significant impact on the field of synthetic organic chemistry. It is sponsored by the Pfizer Endowment Fund. 

The award was announced last week by Chemical & Engineering News, a publication of the American Chemical Society. 

Along with other award winners, Knowles will be honored at the 2023 ACS Spring Conference in Indianapolis next March.

Professor of Chemistry Robert Knowles
Robert Knowles, professor in the Department of Chemistry.

“I was certainly happy to get the news,” said Knowles. “This is a celebration of the entire Knowles Group and their accomplishments. All of the experimental, intellectual, and conceptual contributions of many people over the years have led to this award, so I am thankful to all of them.”

Knowles addresses unsolved problems in synthetic organic chemistry primarily through Proton Coupled Electron Transfer (PCETs) reactions, a class of mechanisms in which both protons and electrons are exchanged together in a concerted process. Nature relies on biological redox processes like CO2 reduction, nitrogen fixation, and photosynthesis that utilize these coupled motions. 

Accomplishing such reactions in a lab, however, is a significant challenge. It has been the purview of the Knowles Group for more than a decade now. 

“In particular what we’ve been interested in is the ability of PCET to be able to form or break certain bonds to hydrogen that are difficult to do using conventional reagents,” said Knowles. “We can take the framework of nature that uses these enzymatic systems and expand the energetic range over which it operates in the lab, activating all sorts of molecules in ways that have traditionally been out of reach.”

Department Chair Greg Scholes said, “Rob’s award sharpens our already pronounced profile in organic synthetic chemistry here at Princeton. We are delighted to hear the news and offer this exceptional colleague warm congratulations.”

David MacMillan, the James S. McDonnell Distinguished University Professor of Chemistry, lauded Knowles' creativity in inventing things that organic chemists care about. 

"You sit down and talk with him and realize he's just such a substantial and brilliant thinker, and also the world's most humble guy," said MacMillan. "He's just the quintessential scientist in so many ways."

Knowles received his B.S. in chemistry from the College of William and Mary in 2003. He received his Ph.D. in synthetic organic chemistry from Caltech in 2008, and did his postdoc work as an NIH postdoctoral fellow at Harvard University. He joined Princeton Chemistry in the summer of 2011, and was promoted to professor in 2017. 

Among other awards, Knowles won the ACS Arthur C. Cope Scholar Award in 2018; a Camille Dreyfus Teacher Scholar Award in 2017; and an Alfred P. Sloan Foundation Research Fellowship in 2014.

Previous Princeton Chemistry winners of the Corey Award include Abigail Doyle, who won last year; and David MacMillan, who won in 2005.

The award is named for Harvard professor emeritus, Nobel Laureate, and American organic chemist Elias James "E.J." Corey, who is 94 years old and considered by many to be one of the world’s greatest living chemists.