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Coppens celebrated for his 48 years at UB

President Satish K. Tripathi presents SUNY Distinguished Professor Emeritus Philip Coppens with a gift at a symposium honoring Coppens’ service to UB and the scientific community. Photos: Nancy J. Parisi

By CHARLOTTE HSU

Published October 26, 2016

“He has this amazing legacy. Some faculty members ease out of research as they near retirement, but he just kept his lab going. ”
David Watson, professor and chair
Department of Chemistry

Well-wishers from as far away as India, Denmark, Poland, France, Germany and Slovakia came to UB on Saturday to celebrate chemist Philip Coppens, who is retiring after nearly half a century at the university.

A SUNY Distinguished Professor Emeritus in the Department of Chemistry, Coppens joined UB’s faculty in 1968.

He is one of the world’s pre-eminent minds in the field of crystallography, the study of how atoms are arranged within crystals. It’s a field that has accelerated the development of modern technologies, from new materials to drugs for disease.

On Saturday, colleagues and longtime friends came together to honor Coppens at a symposium in the chemistry department on the North Campus.

“He is a giant in crystallography,” said Jochen Schneider, former research director of the Deutsches Elektronen-Synchrotron (DESY) research center, who traveled from Germany to see Coppens. “For me, I have enjoyed his friendship, the permanent stimulus of talking to him.”

“It’s not at all too much to say,” agreed Finn Larsen, an Aarhus University scientist who came from Denmark to speak at the symposium. Decades ago, Larsen was one of the first postdoctoral researchers in Coppens’ lab at UB.

After coffee and an ample breakfast of pastries, donuts, bagels and fruit in Talbert Hall, presenters regaled the audience with personal stories about Coppens and lectures linked to his research. The event concluded with dinner at Byblos restaurant in Amherst, where attendees feted Coppens and wished him a happy early birthday (he turns 86 on Oct. 24).

Guests received an appropriately geeky gift — an oversized mug bearing Coppens’ portrait and a scientific diagram related to a 1967 paper he published in Science, one of the most prestigious peer-reviewed journals in the world.

An enduring sense of wonder

In 50 years as a scientist, Coppens never lost his sense of wonder for discovery.

He told UBNow in 2013 that he was drawn to crystallography because of what he called “the beauty of the results.” He loved the elegance of his discipline — the way that atoms within crystals were arranged in precise patterns that were carefully repeated.

Coppens’ career began in his native country, the Netherlands, where he received his PhD from the University of Amsterdam in 1960 after working on his degree research at the Weizmann Institute in Israel for more than three years, during which he made a number of lifelong friends.

At the time, crystallography was a rapidly emerging field, and Coppens wanted in.

He became one of the first researchers in the world to use a method called X-ray diffraction to study the bonds connecting atoms and molecules inside crystals. Later, he broke new ground again by using X-ray diffraction to investigate the effect of light on crystals and how crystals themselves emit light.

Coppens’ work opened new ways of doing science. His successes earned him the recognition of peers around the world.

In 2005, he received the International Union of Crystallography’s Ewald Prize for outstanding contributions to crystallography — an award that has been given just 10 times since 1986.

In 2014, Chemical & Engineering News, the magazine of the American Chemical Society, chose the nitroprusside ion — whose light-induced modifications Coppens’ team described in 1994 — as one of the top 10 molecular structures ever solved. (At Saturday's symposium, colleagues presented Coppens with a 3-D-printed model of this molecule as a retirement gift.)

 These accolades were among many national and international honors Coppens received over several decades, a testament to his immutable spirit of innovation.

A commemorative Coppens mug. Each guest at the symposium received one as a gift. The mug features a diagram related to a single-author paper Coppens published in 1967 in Science, a leading academic journal. Photo: Douglas Levere

One of UB’s great minds

At UB, Coppens is known among colleagues as a quiet man with a brilliant intellect.

For five decades, he was a fixture of the chemistry department and a champion for science, whether he was publishing groundbreaking research or judging a crystal-growing contest for kids.

He raised the profile of UB and Buffalo, drawing some of the brightest minds to the region to study crystallography, said President Satish K. Tripathi, who delivered opening remarks at the symposium in honor of Coppens.

David Watson, chair of the chemistry department, says Coppens will be missed for the rigor and vigor of his research: He pursued scientific questions with an intense curiosity that inspired others to do more and do better.

Awards and honors

Kolos Award of the Polish Chemical Society, September 2013
American Crystallographic Association Fellow (2011) (first selection of ACA fellows)
Honored by Special Symposium, American Crystallographic Association meeting, New Orleans, May 2011
Western New York Pioneer of Science Award of the Hauptman-Woodward Medical Research Institute (2008)
Ewald Prize of the International Union of Crystallography (2005)
National Science Foundation, Creativity Award (2005-2007)
Nishikawa Prize of the Crystallography Society of Japan (2005)
Henry M. Woodburn Chair of Chemistry (1999-2012)
Gregori Aminoff Prize of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences (1996)
Schoellkopf Award of the Western New York Section of the American Chemical Society (1996)
Harker Award of The Hauptman-Woodward Medical Research Institute (1995)
Honorable Visitor of the National Science Council of the Republic of China (1995)
Martin Buerger Award of the American Crystallographic Association (1994)
AAAS Fellow (1993)
Doctor Honoris Causa, University of Nancy (1989)
Corresponding Member, Royal Dutch Academy of Sciences

“He has this amazing legacy,” Watson says. “Some faculty members ease out of research as they near retirement, but he just kept his lab going. He still has a Department of Energy grant for the next year or so.”

“The guy is a work horse. He knows how to identify scientifically interesting problems and chase these things down — to pursue answers really tirelessly,” says Jason Benedict, a UB assistant professor of chemistry who got his start as a postdoctoral researcher in Coppens’ lab eight years ago.

Benedict co-organized Saturday’s symposium with Yu-Sheng Chen, a beamline scientist at the University of Chicago and the Advanced Photon Source, and Milan Gembicky, an X-ray crystallographer at the University of California, San Diego.

Asked what the most rewarding part of his tenure at UB was, Coppens replied that it was the people — the colleagues and friends who made the university an exciting place to work.

“The chemistry department has been, right from the beginning in 1968, a stimulating environment for research. I much appreciated interacting with many of my colleagues, and the participation of so many superb collaborators from the U.S. and abroad was most stimulating and led to many friendship, as was evident at the symposium.”