Chemist Comes Home
A St. Louis native and MU graduate has returned to Missouri to begin the next chapter in his remarkable scientific career. Professor Arthur Suits, BS ’87, considered one of the best experimental physical chemists in the world, brought his team of graduate students and postdoctoral fellows from Wayne State University in Detroit to Columbia in January. For the past few weeks, in a lab in Schlundt Hall, his team has been reassembling the equipment they brought from Detroit—not beakers and flasks and Bunsen burners but vacuum pumps and stainless steel chambers and lasers. One piece of equipment, a chirped-pulse uniform flow device, is the only one of its kind in the world. Suits and his team build all of their own equipment.
“We use the techniques of physics to study chemical problems, chemical reactions, and chemical transformations,” Suits says. “The work we do is focused on studying elementary chemical reactions at the full level quantum mechanics allows, so we try to know everything that is possible to know about a reaction.”
Suits says the experiments his team performs are similar in spirit to those conducted at the Large Hadron Collider in Europe, the world’s largest and most powerful particle accelerator, only on a much smaller scale.
“We can study reactions where a molecule collides with another molecule as a chemical reaction, and then we can detect the products and look at how much energy is released, so that’s very much like the scattering experiments of the large collider—proton versus proton, only it’s much, much lower energy, and probing entirely different phenomena” Suits says. “In a way, it’s a really hard way to do chemistry. It’s much easier to light a Bunsen burner, but we’re getting details you cannot get other ways.”
Suits says everything he and his team do is basic research, although that research has implications for atmospheric chemistry, astrochemistry, combustion, and other gas-phase processes. He says his general field is chemical dynamics, so he is interested in making “movies” of what is happening in a reaction rather than determining the static properties of that reaction.
“We want to know how it goes from here to here, and then we can extrapolate what we can measure in the lab to conditions in an interstellar cloud near absolute zero or an internal combustion engine that’s a few thousand degrees Celsius,” Suits says.
While Suits is returning to Missouri to begin the next phase of his career, his home state is less familiar to his team of graduate students and postdoctoral fellows. Four of his graduate students are from Sri Lanka, one is from China, one is from Ghana, and a new team member is from Iran. One of his postdocs is from England and another postdoc who will soon join his team is from France, while aspects of the groups’ day-to-day activities are managed by a research scientist from Michigan.
Suits earned his degree in chemistry from MU in 1987 and his PhD from the University of California, Berkeley. He completed a postdoctoral fellowship at Cornell University before becoming a staff scientist at Lawrence Berkley National Laboratory in California. He was a chemistry professor at Wayne State University for 12 years before accepting the position at MU late last year.
Suits is a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and a fellow of the American Physical Society. He is an incredibly productive scholar with over 180 publications, including six articles in Science, and he has been cited more than 5,000 times.