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Professor wins prestigious environmental chemistry award

AWARD WINNER: Professor Andre Simpson is recognized for his research with hyphenated nuclear magnetic resonance techniques. (Photo by Ken Jones.)

by Mary Ann Gratton

Physical and environmental sciences professor André Simpson has been named the recipient of a prestigious international research award, the Society of Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry (SETAC) announced recently.

Simpson was named the winner of the 2008 SETAC/Royal Society of Chemistry Environmental Sciences Award, which each year recognizes an early- to mid-career scientist who has accomplished and published outstanding contributions that have advanced the understanding or development of environmental systems, technologies, methodologies, or other relevant research in the environmental sciences.

“I was ecstatic and super happy,” said Simpson. “Lots of colleagues have congratulated me, and I’m very pleased with this news.” The award was announced at SETAC’s annual meeting, held this time in Tampa, Florida.

SETAC is a not-for-profit, worldwide professional society founded in 1979. It consists of individuals and institutions from an array of scientific fields, including environmental toxicology and chemistry, biology, ecology, earth sciences, atmospheric sciences, heath sciences, hazard and risk assessment, environmental engineering and life-cycle assessment.

According to the citation, “André has published more than 50 reference articles since his first journal publication in 2000. He has contributed to 10 book chapters, and has been frequently published in Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry. He is best known for his research with hyphenated nuclear magnetic resonance techniques, especially dealing with structure, interactions and reactivity of natural organic matter. In 2004, he co-founded the Environmental NMR (Nuclear Magnetic Resonance) Centre – the first of its kind in Canada -- at the University of Toronto Scarborough. His publications are insightful and thought-provoking and have had major implications for the agricultural and environmental sciences. He was also ranked among the Top Ten to Watch in 2008, (along with Professor Myrna Simpson), by the Toronto Star. It is through Simpson’s productive and insightful research in the environmental sciences that he is most qualified for this award.”

The award is offered jointly by SETAC and the Royal Society of Chemistry (RSC), which is based in England. As the recipient of this year’s award, Simpson receives $1,000, a waiver for conference registration fees for that year, a one-year subscription to the RSC’s Journal of Environmental Monitoring, and a one-year subscription to SETAC’s journal, Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry.

Simpson was unable to attend the 2008 SETAC meeting. A plaque will be presented to him at next year’s annual meeting, to be held in New Orleans.

Simpson has been at the University of Toronto Scarborough for six years. Together he and Professor Myrna Simpson established the Environmental NMR Centre on the campus. It is the only centre in the world where researchers are developing “hyphenated NMR spectroscopy” specifically for environmental research.

Nuclear magnetic resonance refers to a group of scientific methods used to study molecules, and by observing molecules inside an NMR, scientists can discover structural information about the molecule itself. André Simpson’s research aims to develop new analytical, spectroscopy-based methods of studying molecules or groups of molecules in the environment, specifically their reactivity, structures and associations. He notes that soil contains very complex, naturally occurring mixtures that have been difficult for scientists to analyze due to a lack of spectroscopic methods available to unveil the level of detail needed to provide crucial information at the molecular level that would help researchers to understand global environmental processes.

“I try to understand complex environmental processes such as global warming and contaminant transfer, and I do this by looking at molecular interactions,” he said. “Our team is striving to understand how molecules stick to and interact with other molecules in order to learn more about these bigger questions.”

Simpson notes that NMR spectroscopy is the single most powerful analytical technique for the analysis of organic structures, and can reveal the basic chemical structures present in a structure where other research methods fall short.

“NMR is by far the most powerful tool that we have in chemistry,” he said. “It’s the only technique that allows us to identify unknown molecules from scratch. No other method lets us actually work out the structure of a completely new molecule, so NMR can identify contents from soil and from the oceans that nothing else can interpret. We took samples from the bottom of the ocean and put them in the NMR, and we were all saying ‘Wow… we’ve never seen anything like this before.’ It’s exciting, because it’s all about discovery, and our students love working with it.”

His research focuses on the development of NMR Spectroscopy, and specifically linking it to other analytical methods such as mass spectrometry. The resulting instrumentation is called “hyphenated NMR” and has unrivalled analytical capabilities -- in fact, some have called hyphenated NMR “the future of analytical science.”

An NMR is essentially a huge magnet. Once inside the magnet, molecules give off a frequency, somewhat analogous to them “singing”. These frequencies and their interferences allow researchers to completely solve a molecule’s structure. U of T Scarborough celebrated the official installation of its own NMR in May 2004, with funding from the Canadian Foundation for Innovation and a substantial donation from Bruker BioSpin Inc., the world’s leading supplier of NMR technology.

“There’s a huge learning curve with NMR, particularly as a result of the complex instrumentation, and although NMR is used a great deal in the medical field, scientists don’t use it much for environmental work,” said Simpson. “I’m biased, but I find it’s definitely worth the extra work because you can apply it to big problems that nothing else can solve.”

© University of Toronto Scarborough