- B. Sc. in Chemistry, 1982, University of Texas
- Ph.D. in Chemistry, 1986, University of North Carolina
“Organic synthesis/materials synthesis — I design and build new nanostructured materials for use in chemical separations, environmental remediation, advanced sensing/detection systems, and catalysis.”
Advice to Students:
“As the old cliché goes, “The world is your oyster”; life will be whatever you make of it. Don’t blame somebody else for the potholes in the Road of Life, they are going to be there no matter what anybody does, it’s up to you to fill them in and make things happen for YOU. Don’t be afraid to ask questions, follow your heart, and “to thine own self be true”.
Q: When did you first find that your career path focused on nanotechnology?
Fryxell: In the mid-1990s. I had been studying some of the fundamental science aspects of molecular self-assembly for several years at that point, and then we started coupling that chemistry with nanostructured materials, and using those functional nanomaterials to effect chemical separations aimed at specific environmental needs.
Q: What current nanotechnology applications are you working on?
Fryxell: High performance, chemically selective sorbents for sequestering heavy metals and radionuclides out of groundwater and industrial process streams; design and synthesis of new classes of nanomaterials tailored for cleaning up gas streams (e.g. mercury capture from coal plants); powerful new sensing systems for monitoring heavy metal and radionuclide concentrations in biological fluids (e.g. blood, saliva, urine, etc.) for rapid determination of human exposure to hazardous materials; development of exciting new dialysis techniques for removing heavy metals and radionuclides from patient’s blood.
Q: What’s the most rewarding thing about working with nanotechnology?
Fryxell: Functional nanomaterials are inherently useful materials that can be applied in a multitude of ways, thereby enabling solutions to many different problems facing society today. This is almost always interdisciplinary research, so a little creative chemistry (both in terms of the science, and in terms of the collaborative relationships within the team) goes a long way. Such efforts can be remarkably fruitful and productive, yielding new technologies and solutions to problems that can be very rewarding.
Q: Is there an example you can provide that shows how something you’ve worked on has positively impacted the world?
Fryxell: Yes. At PNNL, we have developed a powerful new technology called SAMMS(TM) (Self-Assembled Monolayers on Mesoporous Supports) for removing heavy metals from industrial process streams. We have performed field demonstrations of heavy metal capture in process streams associated with the chemical industry, the petroleum industry, and the mining industry, as well as demonstrations of precious metal catalyst recovery, and clean up of contaminated chemical weapons so they could be permanently destroyed (incinerated). SAMMS(TM) is a single, basic nanotechnology platform that can be applied in a wide variety of ways, to address a multitude of problems. SAMMS(TM) are available in commercial quantities from Steward Environmental Solutions, of Chattanooga, Tennessee.
Q: What do you think is the single greatest impact nanotechnology has had on the world thus far?
Fryxell: Hmmmm, that’s a tough question! Nanotechnology has been applied to everything from water purification, to pharmaceutical production, to lightweight composite materials, to high-tech microelectronics. Information transfer and storage, medical diagnostics, “green” manufacturing, in situ remediation of hazardous materials — these are all things that nanomaterials have contributed to. Which one is most important? That’s hard to say. I’m going to admit right up front that I’m biased, but my vote goes for water purification, simply because without clean water all the rest of it really doesn’t matter.
Q: Please give an example of what you envision nanotechnology applications leading to in the future.
Fryxell: I foresee nanotechnology eventually getting integrated into virtually all aspects of our daily lives — sensors in our home appliances, controlled-release methods for our medications, improved purification methods for the air we breathe and water we drink, more energy efficient vehicles, more efficient energy production, more sustainable (environmentally friendly) manufacturing methods, a cleaner environment, faster more accurate medical diagnostics….the list goes on. The future is bright!
Q: Do you find yourself working more in a team situation, or more alone?
Fryxell: In a team situation, absolutely! The nature of scientific research today is that we are tackling interdisciplinary problems. One can sit down and study multiple fields of study and become an expert in several diverse fields after many years, but that is slow, inefficient and time-consuming. Or one can collaborate with experts in other fields, and learn from them while you are doing the work (and teaching your students). This produces results (and publications) much faster, not to mention giving a broader perspective (and stronger education) to your students.
Q: If you work more as a team, what are some of the other areas of expertise of your team members?
Fryxell: I am an organic chemist, by training. I have collaborators that are civil engineers, chemical engineers, analytical chemists, physical chemists, organometallic chemists, mechanical engineers, materials scientists, biologists, toxicologists, radiochemists, physicists, and more.
Q: Did your university training help you in your nanotechnology work?
Fryxell: Yes, by teaching me the synthetic skills that I need to build the molecules necessary for the studies we want to carry out now, as well as providing me with a fundamental understanding of the chemistry of silica.
Q: Do you have a mentor? Did you in your college years?
Fryxell: These days I focus more on being a mentor, rather than having one. Yes, good teachers are a blessing indeed, and I have been blessed with a number of outstanding mentors over the years. Looking back on my past, I realize that K. C. Morgan (my advanced biology teacher in high school) had a significant influence on my thinking, and ultimately my career choices (although I probably wouldn’t have admitted it at the time). The single biggest influence on me was my undergraduate research advisor, Dr. Marye Anne Fox (then an Asst./Assoc. Professor of Chemistry at the University of Texas, now in 2008 the Chancellor of the University of California – San Diego). I learned more chemistry from Dr. Fox, in a relatively short period of time, than I can possibly convey in words here. It was a remarkably fertile time in my education, and going to work for her was one of the best decisions I ever made. She not only taught me chemistry, but more importantly she honed my chemical intuition, and taught me to appreciate the reaction mechanisms (the “molecular dance”) that were responsible for the chemistry we observed. These tools have served me very well over the last three decades. Another mentor that added to, and reinforced, these lessons was my postdoctoral advisor, Dr. Albert Padwa (Emory University). In Dr. Padwa I found a kindred spirit, one who was wise and caring, and one who taught by inspiring. I learned much from Dr. Padwa — some of it was chemistry, some of it was about the competitive world of research, and some of it was about myself. I am grateful for all of the mentors I have had over the years, but these three hold a special place in my heart.
Q: If you had to do it all over again, would you still focus on nanotechnology applications?
Fryxell: Absolutely! Where else could I have so much fun AND make a difference to human society?
Q: If a high school or college student was interested in nanotechnology, what advice would you give them to help prepare take on those roles?
Fryxell: Take as many chemistry courses as you can, and ask questions about whatever you find interesting.
Q: What other advice do you have for pre-university students?
Fryxell: As the old cliché goes, “The world is your oyster”; life will be whatever you make of it. Don’t blame somebody else for the potholes in the Road of Life, they are going to be there no matter what anybody does, it’s up to you to fill them in and make things happen for YOU. Don’t be afraid to ask questions, follow your heart, and “to thine own self be true”.