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Wayne State University chemistry professor selected for Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers

July 26, 2012

DETROITWen Li, assistant professor in the Department of Chemistry at Wayne State University, has been selected for a Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers (PECASE). The White House describes the award as “the highest honor bestowed by the United States government on science and engineering professionals in the early stages of their independent research careers.”

The award is for $1 million over five years and will aid Li’s research into “the most exquisite details of chemical reactions,” he says.

“Many things in everyday life come down to chemical reactions,” Li explains. “In my lab, we study the motion of nuclei and electrons during such reactions. People have been studying the nuclear motion of chemical reactions for a while, but we are studying the electrons, which for a long time people considered too fast to study. No technique thus far can track down their motions. And that’s what my research program aims to do in the next few years.”

Li’s PECASE studies are being funded by the Department of Defense. “They are interested in fundamental research,” Li says. “How do you control chemical reactions?”

Answering that question, he says, “is the holy grail of chemical dynamics study.”

In order to capture the movement of electrons, Li uses “ultrashort laser pulses,” which last a few hundred attoseconds. An attosecond is one-quintillionth of a second. By comparison, a nanosecond is one-billionth of a second. “In order to capture something as fast as electrons, you need something equally fast,” Li says.

Entering his fourth year in the WSU chemistry department, Li credits the support of colleagues in its physical chemistry division, in particular Arthur Suits and Berny Schlegel, as well as department chair Jim Rigby. He also credits the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, which provided him sufficient start-up money when he was hired to set up his lab and eventually make the PECASE honor possible. “The college and the university invested in me,” Li says, “and it paid off.”

The Early Career Awards, established by President Clinton in 1996, are coordinated by the Office of Science and Technology Policy within the Executive Office of the President. Awardees are selected for their pursuit of innovative research at the frontiers of science and technology and their commitment to community service as demonstrated through scientific leadership, public education or community outreach.

Wayne State University is a premier urban research institution of higher education offering 370 academic programs through 13 schools and colleges to nearly 31,000 students.

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