Rice’s László Kürti wins NSF CAREER award

László Kürti came to Rice University on a career high, with a CAREER award in his pocket.

The prestigious National Science Foundation award was announced shortly before Kürti, a synthetic organic chemist, began setting up shop at the university’s BioScience Research Collaborative. The award, worth $675,000 to Kürti’s lab over the next five years, is given to support young faculty who show extraordinary promise in their fields.

László Kürti.

László Kürti. Photo by Jeff Fitlow

Kürti joined Rice this summer as an associate professor of chemistry after five years on the faculty at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center at Dallas. There he worked on the environmentally sustainable synthesis of complex molecular building blocks for pharmaceutical use.

Prior to moving to Texas, Kürti earned his Ph.D. from the University of Pennsylvania and spent four years at Harvard University as the Damon Runyon Cancer Fellow to develop potent antiangiogenesis agents in the lab of Nobel Prize laureate E.J. Corey.

At Corey’s suggestion, Kürti’s Rice group will continue to develop synthetic tools that help laboratories quickly build drug candidates without the need for transition metals — conductive metals in the periodic table that include titanium, iron, nickel, silver, copper, palladium and gold – that are commonly used to catalyze chemical reactions.

“This does two things: It makes processes simpler and cheaper, and of course you don’t have to deal with the removal of toxic metals,” Kürti said. “There is a great deal of demand in the pharmaceutical industry for transition-metal-free reactions, especially on the process side of research.”

Kürti has deep experience in this area; he developed several processes that use simple intermediates to build structurally complex molecules. In one such study, his lab achieved the first metal-free synthesis of primary aromatic amines from arylboronic acids, “a reaction that has eluded synthetic chemists for decades,” according to the paper. In another project, highly functionalized biaryls that can be used as catalysts were prepared in a single step, condensing multistep synthetic approaches that are both costly and inefficient.

“I am a scientist focusing on fundamental organic chemistry,” said Kürti, who works closely with a theoretical collaborator, Daniel Ess, at Brigham Young University. “I care about what makes a chemical process work and the fine details of the mechanism. We pay a lot of attention to that.

“We dig very deep and when we find the mechanistic details of a new process, we try to use it for other novel processes. That’s what this CAREER award is for: We are making new electrophilic nitrogen species and will then try to develop reactions without the use of transition metals.”

Kürti has co-authored three books on synthetic chemistry: one with his wife, Barbara Czakó, a research scientist at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center’s Institute for Applied Cancer Science; a second with Corey; and a third with both.

He looks forward to teaching his first undergraduate organic chemistry class at Rice in the spring and hopes undergraduates will apply to work in his lab.

Though he’s new to the university, Kürti said the lab is off to a running start, with papers nearing completion and funding through the CAREER award and a major R01 grant from the National Institutes of Health, which he got an hour after signing on at Rice.

“That was pretty cool,” he said. “Two grants, like that!”



About Mike Williams

Mike Williams is a senior media relations specialist in Rice University's Office of Public Affairs.