Stanley earns NSF Career Award for success in lab, classroom

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If earning a NSF Career Award is a springboard for a successful career, Levi Stanley has launched himself into the pool.

The National Science Foundation has announced Stanley, an assistant professor of chemistry at Iowa State University, a recipient of its 2014 Career Award. The NSF Career Award is the Foundation’s most prestigious award in support of junior faculty.

“The NSF Career Award should be an expectation among our junior faculty,” Stanley said of earning the award. “We strive to be one of the best chemistry departments in the world, and we should always be living up to that.”

Stanley hit the ground running when he joined the ISU chemistry faculty in spring 2012. By August that year, he was named the Carlyle G. Caldwell Endowed Chair, which provided two years of supplemental funds for his catalysis research. He said catalysis – the acceleration of chemical reactions by the action of a catalyst that remains unchanged at the end of the process – has been a very active field during the past 20 years.

“Catalysis has exploded over the past couple of decades,” he said. “What makes our research unique is that we are developing catalysts for an understudied chemical reaction and establishing this reaction as a platform for the synthesis of medicinally important compounds.”

The NSF Career Award: The Faculty Early Career Development (CAREER) Program is a Foundation-wide activity that offers the National Science Foundation’s most prestigious awards in support of junior faculty who exemplify the role of teacher-scholars through outstanding research, excellent education and the integration of education and research within the context of the mission of their organizations.

“With this NSF Career award so early in his tenure at ISU, we are seeing the rapid development of his program into a wider range of very fundamental synthetic catalysis,” said William Jenks, chemistry professor and chair. “He is jumping into a field where there is a lot of competition and the Career award shows that he is already viewed as one of the young leaders in the field.”

For an applicant to be considered for the Career award, they must excel in the lab as well as the classroom. Stanley has grown into his role as a professor, but said he had to learn how to teach.

“You have to learn how to balance the teaching part with the scientist part,” he said. “In graduate school and postdoctoral studies, you learn how to be an expert researcher, not necessarily how to be an expert teacher. I’m certainly still learning.”

Modesty aside, Stanley’s teaching style made an impression on the Career award selection committee. He said one criticism of teaching organic chemistry is that professors often take a ‘cookbook approach.’

“I believe it’s important for students to have a real world lab experience as undergraduates, so I allow them into the lab to create their own molecules and make their own discoveries. This fits with the theme that ISU thinks is important – getting them real experience as soon as possible.”

As an undergraduate himself, Stanley first studied organic chemistry with plans to go to medical school. When a professor encouraged him to come into the lab and assist with research, Stanley’s plans changed.

“There are many students who just need introduced to the lab at an earlier stage,” he said. “Then the interest is sparked and they join research groups to get more involved. The results are very tangible.”

The NSF Career award provides Stanley $600,000 to continue his research.

About Liberal Arts and Sciences The College of Liberal Arts and Sciences is a world-class learning and research community. Iowa State’s most academically diverse college, LAS educates students to become global citizens, providing rigorous academic programs in the sciences, humanities and social sciences within a supportive personalized learning environment. College faculty design new materials, unravel biological structures, care for the environment, and explore social and behavioral issues. From fundamental research to technology transfer and artistic expression, the college supports people in Iowa and around the world.

NEWS RELEASE College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, Iowa State University

Contacts: Levi Stanley, Department of Chemistry, (515) 294-3609, Jess Guess, Liberal Arts and Sciences Communications, (515) 294-9906,