UD’s Mary Watson earns national award for groundbreaking work in catalysis
Mary P. Watson, professor of chemistry and biochemistry at the University of Delaware, has been selected as the 2023 recipient of the American Chemical Society (ACS) Catalysis Lectureship for the Advancement of Catalytic Science, a prestigious honor that recognizes her research accomplishments in developing new methods to construct organic molecules.
Since 2017, when Watson’s research group published a groundbreaking discovery with a chemical tool known as deaminative cross-coupling reactions, interest in those reactions has surged worldwide, particularly among chemists working with pharmaceuticals. Before that discovery, deaminative reactions were rare and limited in use.
In announcing the award in a March 8 editorial, the journal ACS Catalysis called Watson’s work “innovative and impactful” and noted that her research group “has made major contributions” to these types of reactions. “Not only are [Watson’s] methods innovative, they are highly versatile,” the editorial said.
Joel Rosenthal, professor and chair of UD’s Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry, called Watson “a fantastic contributor” to the department and the University, “in addition to the reputation she has established within the international chemistry community.”
An organic chemist, Watson and her team work with catalysts — substances that enable a reaction to occur but are not changed by it — to produce reactions that can create complex molecules. Cross-coupling reactions are those in which two fragments are joined to form new bonds, often between carbon atoms. In the deaminative type of cross-coupling reactions, chemists use amines, substances that contain nitrogen atoms.
The tools and processes that scientists develop through catalysis enable the creation of sophisticated materials, including pharmaceuticals and plastics.
The field of catalysis is broad, Watson said, “But it all comes down to getting a reaction to happen and then controlling it. We need more options so we can choose ones that meet our needs.”
Those needs, she said, could involve cost: “Why use something that costs $1,000 if you can use something that costs 50 cents?” Other chemists might be more concerned about speed in certain processes and need to find ways to make a reaction happen more quickly. Catalytic scientists can develop new reactions to try to meet those needs.
Watson’s 2017 article, published in the Journal of the American Chemical Society (JACS), described the new strategy her research team developed for forming carbon-carbon bonds. The journal’s editor at the time called it “an important advance” because it showed how alkyl amines, previously considered to be inert, could be activated for cross-coupling reactions.
“We thought at first it was a niche application — innovative, but we weren’t sure who was going to use it,” Watson said. “But pharmaceutical researchers were very interested. It’s been exciting to get this attention.”
The importance of the discovery is highlighted by the fact that since 2017 over 15 groups worldwide have published papers about deaminative reactions of the type Watson established, while there has also been an increase in the development of other types of these reactions.
Her group has continued and expanded its work in this area and has recently worked with researchers at Merck and Co. Their newest findings were published Feb. 28, 2023, in JACS.
During the research discussed in that paper, Watson said, “We don’t make pharmaceuticals, but we show that [the process] could be used for that purpose.”
More about Prof. Mary Watson
Watson joined the UD faculty in 2009 after completing a National Institutes of Health postdoctoral fellowship at Harvard University. Now promoted to professor, she is also affiliated with UD’s interdisciplinary Center for Catalytic Science and Technology and part of the Center for Plastics Innovation.
“In addition to the highly impactful research that she pursues with her students, Prof. Watson is a sought-after collaborator for many others on our campus in the area of chemical catalysis and beyond,” Rosenthal said. “Prof. Watson is also a dynamic teacher in the classroom and a dedicated mentor to her research trainees; so much of what she does is directed toward helping our students succeed and meet their full potential.
“We are truly fortunate to have Prof. Watson as a UD colleague, and I'm extremely pleased to see her recognized in this way by the American Chemical Society.”
Watson received a National Science Foundation Faculty Early Career Award to support her research in 2012 and in 2013 was named a “Rising Star” by the ACS Women Chemists Committee. In 2017, her team was one of 22 highlighted in a special edition of JACS that recognized outstanding young investigators.
A year after Watson came to UD, Richard Heck, then the Willis F. Harrington Professor Emeritus of chemistry and biochemistry, was awarded the 2010 Nobel Prize in chemistry for his work on palladium-catalyzed cross-coupling reactions. Heck, who retired from UD in 1989 and died in 2015, is among the scientists whose catalysis work inspired Watson, she said.
She has spoken at events on campus about the Heck Reaction, which changed the way molecules can be made and has been used widely by other chemists.
Watson will be honored with a symposium in her honor at the ACS national meeting in San Francisco this fall. The ACS Catalysis announcement has more information about Watson’s research.