University of Chicago chemist Mark Levin named 2021 Packard Fellow

Early-career award will provide $875,000 of research support over five years

University of Chicago chemist Mark Levin has received a 2021 Packard Fellowship in Science and Engineering. Levin is one of 20 early-career scientists and engineers nationwide to receive the fellowship from the David and Lucile Packard Foundation.

Levin, an assistant professor in chemistry, will receive $875,000 over five years to support his research. In May 2021, he published a study in Nature announcing a discovery of how to easily cut nitrogen atoms out of molecules. By making such precise changes to the skeletons of molecules, Levin aims to open up avenues for constructing molecules that assist with curing diseases.

“The medicines, materials, and fuels of the future depend on our ability to design and make new molecules,” said Levin. “The process of discovery requires chemists to make hundreds if not thousands of molecules along the way, searching for the one that does its job, like curing a disease, the best.”

Levin’s lab wants to make that search process as easy in the reaction flask as it is to draw the molecules on a computer screen. The nitrogen edit, they said, proved it is possible, by inventing a new chemical reaction that can “live-edit” molecules down to the level of single-atom precision.

The hope is that their discovery will transform current thinking about how to optimize a molecule. “Most chemists consider the molecular skeleton to be a static feature that can't be ‘edited’ without starting over from scratch,” said Levin. “My lab is trying to overturn that perspective by engaging typically inert parts of the molecule in new chemical reactions.”

With this award from the Packard Foundation, the Levin lab will build a toolbox of chemical reactions that other chemists can use to solve whatever problem they are working on. “The indirect effects are like the consequences of better tools for engineering projects—they will dramatically affect the pace of discovery,” he said.

Levin, who joined the UChicago faculty in 2019, was also awarded a 2020 Cancer Research Foundation Young Investigator Award.

The Packard Foundation established the fellowships program in 1988 to provide early-career scientists with flexible funding and the freedom to take risks and explore new frontiers in their fields. The Packard Foundation Fellowships Advisory Panel, a group of 12 internationally recognized scientists and engineers, evaluates the nominations and recommends fellows for approval by the Packard Foundation Board of Trustees.