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Rodrigo Noriega named 2024 Sloan Research Fellow

U chemist advances materials development by exploring molecular-scale dynamic processes using laser spectroscopy.

Reposted from the College of Science.

The Alfred P. Sloan Foundation has named the University of Utah’s Rodrigo Noriega, an assistant professor of chemistry who uses ultrafast laser spectroscopy to advance materials development, a 2024 Sloan Research Fellow.

Rodrigo Noriega

The Sloan Research Fellowship Program recognizes and rewards outstanding faculty who have the potential to revolutionize their fields of study. The two-year $75,000 fellowships are awarded annually to early-career researchers whose creativity, innovation and research accomplishments make them stand out as the next generation of leaders.

Noriega and his team explore the interface of spectroscopy and materials chemistry to probe the relationships between chemical identity, molecular-scale dynamic processes and macroscale observables.

“We are particularly interested in molecular systems,” Noriega said, “because they represent a seemingly boundless portfolio of materials.”

But his lab takes a new approach to tuning their properties.

“As a complementary avenue to synthetic efforts, our lab instead seeks to understand the manifold interactions within molecular environments—such as solvation and electrostatics which play critical roles in the charge transport, reactivity and supramolecular assembly of functional materials.”

Dynamic molecular environments span a large range of complexity, and active projects in the Noriega group investigate a variety of chemical systems. These range from small reactive species in solution to electrochemical interfaces and large protein-RNA complexes, which they analyze with laser spectroscopies across the electromagnetic spectrum in combination with structurally- and composition-sensitive tools.

“We are very appreciative of the strong investments on research infrastructure here at the U,” Noriega said. “Having access to world-class facilities across campus in an engaging and collaborative environment has allowed us to tackle a wide variety of scientific questions.”

Some of these research efforts include their study of the role of electrostatics in molecular recognition by RNA-binding proteins, in work funded by the National Science Foundation. Also supported by the NSF, Noriega leads a collaboration with U colleagues Henry S. White and Gregory A. Voth at the University of Chicago to study electrochemical systems where electron transfer reactions are coupled with phase transfer. Last year, Noriega with U colleagues Michael Grünwald and Ryan Looper received a $1 million grant from the W.M. Keck Foundation to study currently unpredictable aspects of the process of crystallization.

Before joining the U’s chemistry faculty in 2016, Noriega received a bachelor’s in engineering physics from Monterrey Tech (2006) in his native Mexico. He earned his doctorate in applied physics from Stanford University, working with Alberto Salleo (2013). Noriega then worked with Naomi Ginsberg at the University of California Berkeley with support from a Philomathia Foundation Postdoctoral Fellowship.

Noriega, who outside work enjoys soccer, running, biking and hiking, said his interest in the dynamic processes that connect structure and function in macromolecules stems from their versatility, from artificial optoelectronic materials to precisely evolved biopolymers present in living systems.

“Their complex molecular conformations and strong interactions with a dynamic and often disordered environment pose exciting challenges to controlling their chemical behavior,” he said. The Sloan Fellowship’s two-year outlay of funding will help his team of researchers to delve deeper into the nanoscale interactions that dictate macroscopic function in molecular materials.

Since 1968, 46 U faculty have been awarded a Sloan fellowship, 34 of them from the College of Science—the most recent, before Noriega, came in 2021 to Luisa Whittaker-Brooks, also in the Department of Chemistry.