Rodrigo Noriega, 2024 Sloan Research Fellow
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.
The first Sloan Research Fellowships were awarded in 1955. Originally awarded in physics, chemistry, and mathematics, the fellowship program has expanded over the decades to also include computer science, Earth system science, economics, and neuroscience. Forty-six U faculty have now, since 1968, been awarded a Sloan fellowship, thirty-four of them from the College of Science – the most recent, before Noriega, being in 2021 to Luisa Whittaker-Brooks, also in the Department of Chemistry.
At the interface of spectroscopy and materials chemistry
Noriega and his team employ ultrafast laser spectroscopy tools to establish relationships between chemical identity, molecular-scale dynamic processes, and macroscale observables with the purpose of directing materials development. "We are particularly interested in molecular systems," says Noriega, "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 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," says Noriega. “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 colleague 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, funding studies of currently unpredictable aspects of the process of crystallization. He is also advancing the use of genetically-encodable tags for applications beyond fluorescence through an intramural 3i initiative grant with Ming C. Hammond and Erik Jorgensen. Besides research, Professor Noriega’s commitment to education was recognized in 2022, when the U awarded him an Early Career Teaching Award.
Before joining the chemistry faculty at the U in 2016, Noriega received a bachelor’s in engineering physics from Monterrey Tech (2006) in his native Mexico. He then moved to California where 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, says 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 says. The Sloan Fellowship's two-year outlay of funding will help Rodrigo Noriega and his team of researchers to delve deeper into the nanoscale interactions that dictate macroscopic function in molecular materials.