Tucker Folsom (left) is described by his mentor Donald Darensbourg, as among the top few students he’s supervised during his nearly five-decade career in chemistry. (Texas A&M College of Science)
Tucker Folsom ’19, a senior chemistry major at Texas A&M University, has been selected to receive the 2019 American Chemical Society (ACS) Division of Inorganic Chemistry Award for Undergraduate Research recognizing the collaborative work of an outstanding undergraduate student/preceptor team in the field of inorganic chemistry.
Folsom and his mentor, Texas A&M Distinguished Professor of Chemistry Donald J. Darensbourg, will be recognized next spring at the 255th ACS National Meeting, scheduled for March 31-April 4 in Orlando. Folsom will be presented with $1,000 and a commemorative plaque, while Darensbourg also will receive a plaque for permanent display at Texas A&M. In addition, the two will be reimbursed up to $1,000 by the division for their travel expenses to Orlando, where Folsom will deliver a talk on his research at the Frontiers in Undergraduate Research Symposium. Both also will be guests of honor at a March 30 dinner with the ACS Division of Inorganic Chemistry Executive Committee.
“Ultimately, what drew me to chemistry and what still motivates me is the ability to think about phenomena at the molecular level and use learned knowledge to make new things,” Folsom said. “I’ve always loved learning, and research has provided me a place where I am constantly pushed to learn and can apply that knowledge in a very tangible way in order to add support for an idea I have about molecules.”
Each year, a maximum of three students nationwide are selected from among a very talented and highly qualified pool of applicants to receive the prestigious award: one from a research-intensive university, one from a primarily undergraduate-serving institution and one from a corporate, national or federal laboratory.
“I’ve been on the faculties of three research universities during the past 50 years, including Texas A&M University for the last 36,” Darensbourg said. “In that time, I have worked with numerous aspiring, bright young chemistry students, and Tucker Folsom would rank in the very top three or four students of that group of over 100. Many of those students have gone on to top universities for Ph.D. degrees with fellowships and are distinguishing themselves in academic and industrial careers.”
Folsom, an Austin native, joined Darensbourg’s research group in fall 2016 as an incoming freshman at Texas A&M on the strength of his performance as a Lake Travis High School student working two summers in a chemistry laboratory at the University of Texas at Austin doing inorganic synthesis. He soon became highly proficient in the group’s synthetic techniques in organometallic chemistry, earning the first of two back-to-back Outstanding Presentation Awards at the Gulf Coast Undergraduate Research (GCUR) Symposium hosted each fall by Rice University.
“My experience at UT and an excellent high school chemistry teacher got me interested in chemistry,” Folsom said. “By the time I started as a freshman at Texas A&M, I was already thinking about doing science and research professionally. This interest prompted me to focus on chemistry and get involved in research immediately. I reached out to a number of chemistry faculty when I got here but was specifically interested in Dr. Darensbourg’s work due to my earlier experience with inorganic synthesis.
“As a freshman, I wasn’t focused on any specific chemistry; instead I just wanted to make metal complexes. Dr. Darensbourg’s group seemed to do that and was willing to take a chance on me as a young student.”
Initially mentored as a freshman by one of Darensbourg’s senior Ph.D. students, Folsom has worked directly with Darensbourg for the past two and half years on the synthesis, characterization and mode of reaction of carbon-monoxide-releasing metal carbonyls containing bulky diamine ligands. He has also completed studies of metal carbonyls, observing oxygen exchange on carbonyl ligands using isotopically labeled H2O. Their research has resulted in multiple publications, including two in peer-reviewed journals for which Folsom not only is first author but also the only other author besides Darensbourg.
“I’m always very tentative about taking on students so early in their university studies, but I saw something special in Tucker,” Darensbourg said. “I’ve never regretted my decision, from initially admitting him into my laboratory as a freshman to becoming his day-to-day mentor a year later. He is a delight to interact with on a regular basis. We meet routinely in my office to have some extremely constructive and informative research discussions, much at the same level I would have with one of my best Ph.D. graduate students.”
As a senior, Folsom is working on the copolymerization of epoxides and carbon dioxide involving chain-transfer agents capable of introducing metal complexes into the copolymer’s backbone. Darensbourg says Folsom is the first to do this and that these studies will be published in 2019 in a high-impact journal, given that his are “novel fundamental investigations which will have numerous applications.” Beyond the lab, Folsom is a student mentor in the Texas A&M Department of Chemistry and is in his third year as an officer for the Texas A&M ACS Student Affiliate Chapter, where he currently serves as president. As a sophomore, he worked with the Aggie Ocean Discovery XPRIZE Team to design an analytical chemistry system for the team’s autonomous underwater vehicle entered in the Shell XPRIZE Ocean Discovery Competition.”
In addition to his work with the Darensbourg group, Folsom has had two summer internships with Procter and Gamble working on Tide formulations as well as another with OXEA Chemicals working as a process chemist in their Bay City, Texas, plant — experiences he says were pivotal in helping him to understand the cycle of research, from the academic level to when technologies are implemented for profit. After graduating from Texas A&M in May, he plans to pursue his Ph.D. in chemistry at a major research university and continue on in research.
“Tucker is a very bright, enthusiastic, hard-working, and ambitious young scientist,” Darensbourg said. “He is extremely independent and works with only minimal directions from me, presenting me with well-written and well-thought-out reports of his findings. He operates at the level of a good graduate student and directs younger undergraduate researchers. He is very creative and does not hesitate to question some of my opinions on directions he should take with his research program.”
This article by Shana K. Hutchins originally appeared on the College of Science website.