Schwartz an Emeritus After 52 Years at Princeton Chemistry

By The Department of Chemistry
Friday, Jun. 3, 2022

Jeffrey Schwartz, professor of chemistry, will transfer to emeritus status on July 1, 2022, having served 52 years on the faculty at the Department of Chemistry. 

During that time, Schwartz mentored 50 graduate students and more than 70 undergraduates in his group, and provided informal guidance to many others.

His career is distinguished by scholarly achievements in organometallics and surface and interface chemistry. He pioneered the field of organozirconium reagent chemistry and introduced major contributions to the development of phosphonate monolayer methodology. 

Schwartz describes his career as “the Zirconium zigzag” – a naturally evolving investigation of reagent aspects of the rich chemistry of his favorite transition metal.

Professor of Chemistry, Emeritus, Jeffrey Schwartz.
Professor of Chemistry, Emeritus, Jeffrey Schwartz.
Photo by C. Todd Reichart

One especially gratifying moment for Schwartz came in 2012 when current and former students across the Department nominated him for, and he received, the President’s Award for Distinguished Teaching. During the announcement at commencement, graduating seniors in the audience gave him a standing ovation. 

“Teaching to me meant not only classroom presentation, but close engagement with group coworkers or anyone else who wanted to argue mechanistic chemistry or discuss their career goals. All were equally important to me,” said Schwartz during a conversation at his Frick Lab office. “In fact, even more meaningful to me than the formal teaching award is my web of friendships that extends to former group members and across departmental lines.”

Schwartz earned his undergraduate degree in 1966 from MIT, where he did research in organocopper chemistry under George Whitesides. He earned his Ph.D. in organic photochemistry in 1970 at Stanford University, where he worked with Eugene van Tamelen and John Brauman.

ARRIVING AT PRINCETON

Schwartz started at Princeton in May of 1970 as one of six assistant professors in the Department. Then, advice from MIT and Stanford mentors was never far from his mind: if specific research ceased to be “fun,” he was advised, he should move on to a new project. This led to a scientific mindset always eager for new challenges. 

When Schwartz started independent research in organometallics, he avoided the heavily studied “late” transition metals like copper, focusing instead on the “early” elements of the transition series.

Funding was hard to obtain. Nevertheless, his group’s work led to a series of papers on hydrozirconation chemistry, which Schwartz is widely credited with discovering; and on developing organozirconium compounds, their hydrogenolysis, transmetalation, or Ni(I)-catalyzed processes, as reagents for organic synthesis. In fact, a chemical compound he introduced was named after him: Zirconocene chloride hydride is known generally as Schwartz’s reagent. 

His successes in the field earned him tenure at Princeton in 1975.

Most organometallics through the 1980s relied on soft ligation, which tends to stabilize low oxidation states of their metallic components. Taking a different tack, Schwartz started a project to learn if creating organometallics in hard ligand environments might lead to preferential stabilization of higher metallic oxidation states. This initiated his group’s long-term interest in oxides, oxide-based ligation, and surface organometallic chemistry. 

A productive 20-year collaboration with Professor of Chemistry Steven Bernasek, Emeritus, also resulted. 

“Jeff's broad interests in chemistry and materials science led us to a number of collaborations and joint Ph.D. student supervisions over the years. Jeff's door was always open to talk about interesting problems in research,” said Bernasek. “One of those conversations resulted in our trying ultrahigh vacuum electron spectroscopy studies of organometallic complexes interacting with well-characterized surfaces. 

“Up to that time, the adsorption of ethylene was the largest molecule I felt comfortable introducing into my UHV spectrometer. Jeff's enthusiasm for understanding in detail the mechanisms of much more complex systems convinced me that this might be worth trying. Thirty years of collaboration, several Ph.D. and postdoctoral fellows, and more than 40 publications later, I am very pleased that we took the chance on Jeff's 'radical idea.’  I learned a great deal, and we had a lot of fun.”

In the late 1990’s Schwartz was asked by a physician if his group could address interfacing synthetic implant materials with tissue-generating cells, a perhaps overly-broad example of organo-metallics. Titanium and its alloys are modern orthopedic materials, but were generally assumed to be chemically inert. 

Starting only from ideas in the corrosion field, his group members figured out how to grow stable, covalently bonded monolayer films of organophosphonates (SAMPs) on these metals, but his group had no experience with cell biology. 

Consequently, he was introduced to Jean Schwarzbauer, Princeton's Eugene Higgins Professor of Molecular Biology and a leading expert on extracellular matrix structure and function. As the collaboration developed over 20 years, the colleagues learned how to prepare SAMPs on metals, silicon, organic polymers, and hydrogels, and to make micron scale SAMP patterns on them to induce cell attachment in a spatially organized way. 

Through Schwartz’s work with friends at Princeton, in Canada, and in Germany, a better understanding of SAMP applications to molecular electronics also emerged. Their research on SAMPs’ electrochemical characterization, use as organic-semiconductor interfaces, and for electrode property control through surface modification, was illustrated in thin film transistor and photovoltaic device applications. 

Phosphonate monolayer derivatives are now in wide use throughout the field of molecular electronics.

DEPARTMENTAL CITIZEN

The Schwartz Lab was known for cultivating the careers of women chemists at all levels of professional development. At one point, the lab employed proportionally more women than any other in the Department. 

Schwartz served terms as Director of Graduate Studies and as Junior/Senior Advisor. He assisted in the first organization of the Department’s financial structure and instrument facility, initiated the subsidy for research use of Departmental instrumentation, and worked on recreating lab facilities in the former Frick complex that were then “loaned” to the founding faculty of the Department of Molecular Biology until their own first building at Princeton was completed. 

Department faculty, staff, and Schwartz Lab alumni will celebrate his Princeton career at a Retirement Symposium in his honor this weekend, with former colleagues and advisees arriving from all over the world. Highlighting the excellence of his undergraduate, graduate, and postdoctoral coworkers, two of each will speak at this symposium. Schwarzbauer will also speak. 

“I am honored to acknowledge these speakers as key colleagues at pivotal points in my scientific development,” said Schwartz.

Schwartz will continue to work on collaborative projects at Princeton, including an active grant on perovskite solar cells with colleagues in the School of Engineering and Applied Science. He also plans to travel often to visit his sons in Los Angeles, CA and Portland, OR.

In addition, he intends to pursue STEM education initiatives with local high schools, extending his sphere of influence to a new generation of young scientists.

For more information on the Symposium, click here.