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Coppens' life's work recognized

Philip Coppens’ work helped bring crystallography to new heights, showing it was possible to use X-ray diffraction to study not only the structure of crystals, but the nature of the bonds that connect the atoms and molecules within. Photo: Nancy J. Parisi


Published April 11, 2013

“It’s fundamental research, but as is always the case, fundamental research leads to insight, to our understanding of things that are not known.”
Philip Coppens, SUNY Distinguished Professor Emeritus
Department of Chemistry

In earlier years, UB chemist Philip Coppens made his mark on the world of science by peering at the tiniest of things.

Using a technique called X-ray diffraction, he gazed deep into crystals, observing and studying the bonds between atoms in molecules. He was one of the first in the world to do this work, and the methods he used later were adopted by scientists around the globe.

The work was in a field called crystallography—the study of the arrangement of atoms in solid structures. He went on to become president of the International Union of Crystallography and a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

Then, with the methods he pioneered blossoming, Coppens moved on to new things: using X-ray diffraction to study the effect of light on crystals and how crystals themselves emit light.

“I decided to switch to something else,” Coppens said one recent afternoon, smiling. The words he chose were simple, but their meaning was profound: Don’t be afraid to look forward. With a new generation of young scientists beginning to build on his work and theories, he felt it was time to move on.

For his lifetime of achievements in crystallography, Coppens will receive the 2013 Kolos Medal and Lecture Award, one of the most prestigious distinctions of the Polish Chemical Society and the University of Warsaw Department of Chemistry. He will travel to the city of Siedlce in eastern Poland this September to attend an awards ceremony and deliver a lecture to graduate students, the next generation of great scientists.

It’s one more step forward on a scientific journey that began many years before.

Coppens, now a SUNY Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Chemistry, joined UB’s faculty in 1968 after receiving a PhD from the University of Amsterdam in the Netherlands, his native country, in 1960.

The field of crystallography “was rapidly developing at that time and it was clear that it offered great opportunities,” Coppens said.

A man with a quiet manner and brilliant mind, he became fascinated by crystallography because of what he calls “the beauty of the results.” He loved mathematics and chemistry, and the way that crystals, on a nanoscale, were orderly, consisting of repeating patterns.

When he earned his PhD, scientists were just beginning to use X-ray diffraction to study the detailed internal structure of crystals. Researchers had long known that when a crystal was struck with an X-ray beam, the beam would scatter, forming a distinctive pattern. But it was only in the 1950s that they succeeded in inverting that relationship to use these X-ray patterns to pinpoint the arrangement of atoms in molecules.

Coppens’ work helped bring crystallography to new heights, showing it was possible to use X-ray diffraction to study not only the structure of crystals, but the nature of the bonds that connected the atoms and molecules within. He developed mathematical techniques that enabled scientists to “see” the electron clouds that held molecules together.

The importance of this work was recognized internationally, with Coppens winning awards, including the Gregori Aminoff Prize of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences and the Nishikawa Special Prize of the Crystallography Society of Japan.

In 2005, Coppens received the International Union of Crystallography’s Ewald Prize for outstanding contributions to crystallography. The award honored his teaching in addition to his research—all the hours and days and years he spent inspiring young scientists to join his beloved field. He remains just one of nine crystallographers to win the Ewald since the first prize was given in 1986.

The Kolos prize again recognizes Coppens’ international contributions. He has lectured at the University of Warsaw, and several Polish postdoctoral fellows and students have spent extensive time in his lab, using crystallography to evaluate the strength of bonds between inhibitors and an enzyme called influenza neuraminidase—work that provides information for the design of drugs against the flu virus.

Today, Coppens is still pushing the bounds of his discipline. He is leading a team in studying how bursts of light can bend molecules.

To study this subject, scientists in his lab shine high-powered lasers onto crystals. Then, a split-second later, they apply a flash of X-rays to obtain a diffraction pattern revealing the altered structure of molecules within. This technique, which Coppens coined “photocrystallography, captures changes in shape that last only millionths of a second.

Another research topic is using crystallography to analyze photoluminescence in crystals. Coppens is interested in how crystals emit light: what happens and how the transmission occurs. This research could lead to advances in organic light-emitting diode (OLED) technologies, while the laser studies could enhance scientific understanding of photosynthesis and photovoltaics (solar energy).

“It’s fundamental research, but as is always the case, fundamental research leads to insight, to our understanding of things that are not known,” Coppens said.

One recent afternoon in his lab, he asked a postdoctoral fellow to pull up X-ray diffraction patterns for different molecules. Each pattern, made from a shower of X-ray beams, consists of tiny pinpricks of light drifting on a dark background, like stars in the ocean of the universe.

They’re wonderful, aren’t they? Coppens asked.

After all he has seen, he remains amazed at the possibilities of science. Years ago, when he began studying light-induced reactions in molecular crystals for his PhD, crystallographers did not have the equipment or know-how to probe deeply into the topic.

“The tools at that time were still very primitive—no lasers, hardly any computing, no automated X-ray data collection, no very intense X-ray sources like synchrotrons,” he said. “It was very clear 20 years ago that enormously more could be accomplished with all that is available now, so I gradually switched my research to apply those new tools.”

His mind is never still. How could it be, when the future holds so many opportunities? The next stop on the scientific journey: a workshop in photocrystallography that will take place in June at UB. The event is attracting participants from all over the world, including lecturers who will teach new methods developed in the past few years.

Coppens is looking forward to it.