September 30, 2015

Professor, Alumnus Awarded MacArthur Grants

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Prof. William Dichtel, chemistry, and Christopher Ré ’01 were announced MacArthur Fellows Tuesday, and are recipients of the MacArthur Foundation’s Genius Grant — $625,000 awarded to fellows to spend with no strings attached.

Dichtel pioneered the development of covalent organic frameworks, a nanostructured material that can be used for energy storage, solar power and other technologies, according to the MacArthur Foun­dation website.





Ré, who is currently a professor of computer science at Stanford University, works to democratize big data analytics. His DeepDive — an inference engine created by Ré — extracts information from and analyzes relationships between “dark data,” according to the foundation site.

Dichtel and Ré are among 24 recipients this year who were recognized by the foundation for “exceptional creativity, promise for important future ad­vances based on a track record of significant accomplishment and potential for the fellowship to facilitate subsequent creative work.”

Until he received a phone call from an unfamiliar number right before a meeting he was hosting, Dichtel said he had never interacted with anyone from the MacArthur Foundation.

“One cannot apply for this honor and the selection process is very secretive — the phone call from the MacArthur Foundation was the first I’d heard from them,” Dichtel said. “I was walking into a meeting that I was hosting when I got the call, and somehow managed to keep calm for it. I then told my wife and no one else about it.”

He added that he felt the award was something he and his team deserved for all their hard work and that working with “talented” Cornell undergraduates, graduate students and postdoctoral researchers was “the best part of [his] job.”

“It’s hard to find words to describe how great it felt,” Dichtel said. “The award really recognizes the talented students and postdoctoral researchers in my group, and it was awesome to finally share the news with them, as well as with my colleagues, family and friends.”

Dichtel’s work focuses on covalent organic frames, which according to Dichtel are “polymers with very tiny pores” whose surface area can reach the size of a football field despite them weighing “as much as a dollar bill.”

“Covalent organic frameworks are a type of polymer whose building blocks organize into repeating two-dimensional and three-dimensional structures — to get an idea of a 2D structure, picture various patterns of bathroom tiles,” Dichtel said. “We have designed versions of these and other types of porous polymers with complex functions — the ability to store electricity, absorb sunlight, purify water and detect explosives.”

Looking toward the future, Dichtel said he expects to use the grant money to further advance his work in COFs, pushing them towards more practical applications and even more theoretical ventures.

“[COFs] remain in their early stages, and much work [still] remains for the COFs to achieve their potential,” he said. “I am still planning what to do with the award money, but it is amazing in that it comes with no strings attached. It will allow us to push our chemistry in directions that would be difficult to fund through traditional means, such as through grants from the National Science Foundation, Department of Defense or other agencies.”

A Cornell alumnus, Ré was recognized for his studies on “dark data,” which is the “mass of unprocessable data buried in texts, illustrations, images,” and technology he has created has been implemented in fields ranging from laboratories to law enforcement, according to the foundation website.

Ré has led a team in creating DeepDive, a data-analysis program that can extract information from graphs, images, diagrams and maps and then convert it to a form understandable by computers. This allows researchers in various fields to harness the fast data-processing of a computer to find patterns in their data that they may have missed before, according to a promotional video for the MacArthur Founda­tion.

In the video, he also outlines the functions of his program and the problems it aims to address.

“DeepDive was a project we started a couple of years ago, basically in response to what we called ‘macroscopic problems.’ These are problems where the information for a particular analysis is out there, scattered throughout the literature and we wanted to bring that information into one place,” he said.

He continued in the video and said the grant would allow him to tackle projects he previously never dreamt of before.

“My reaction when I got the call from MacArthur was that it’s one of those things you dream about — it’s all these projects you’ve had and said, ‘That’s too crazy, you’ll never be able to do that,’ [but] now it looks like you can,” he said.