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Laura Ackerman-Biegasiewicz receives Scialog funding for automating chemistry laboratories

Dr. Laura K. G. Ackerman-Biegasiewicz has received a Scialog: Automating Chemical Laboratories award. The award is part of a three-year initiative from the Research Corporation for Science Advancementthe Arnold and Mabel Beckman Foundation, and the Frederick Gardner Cottrell Foundation that aims to accelerate innovation and broaden access within the chemical enterprise through advances in automated instrumentation and artificial intelligence.

Laura’s project focuses on a data-driven approach for derisking chemical synthesis. The project is in collaboration with Gabe Gomes in the Department of Chemistry and Chemical Engineering at Carnegie Mellon University. Each investigator will receive an individual award of $60,000 in direct costs to support this collaborative project. A total of 18 awards were made to scientists across the country.

Dr. Gabe Gomes

“Gabe and I met each other as students almost 10 years ago,” says Laura. “His training is in computation and machine learning and my training is in organic and organometallics chemistry and we have always wanted to collaborate on a project together. We went our separate ways in our postdocs and independent careers and it was not until this Scialog meeting we both attended that we were finally brought together to talk about ideas we were excited about pursuing in our labs.”

An inaugural conference for the Scialog initiative on April 11-14, 2024, in Tucson, Arizona, provided an opportunity for the collaboration to develop. The format of the conference engaged participants in a series of conversations designed to build a community eager to share their expertise, discuss challenges and gaps in current knowledge, and devise blue-sky collaborative projects marrying advances in automation and AI to key questions in fundamental research.

The conference helped refine the details of a specific collaboration for Ackerman-Biegasiewicz and Gomes. “We found that we were excited about the same thing -accelerating the discovery process in organic chemistry and avoiding typical pitfalls and shortcomings in screening reaction conditions,” says Laura. “There was fundamental data that our lab could provide that theory has a difficult time predicting and he had the ability to transform our data into predictive models that we would have a challenging time addressing. It seems like a perfect match to tackle an outstanding problem in chemical synthesis!”

“We are on the cusp of a revolution in how science gets done,” said RCSA Senior Program Director Andrew Feig, who leads the broad initiative behind the awards. “These technologies will change every aspect of the chemical experimental workflow, from what molecules are made, to how they are synthesized, purified, and analyzed.”

“They could also help democratize science by making discovery open to those with interesting ideas and not just the laboratories with the most expensive, cutting-edge instrumentation,” he added.

Scialog is short for “science + dialog.” Created in 2010 by RCSA, the Scialog format aims to accelerate breakthroughs by building a creative network of scientists that crosses disciplinary silos, and by stimulating intensive conversation around a scientific theme of global importance. Participants are selected from multiple disciplines, approaches and methodologies and are encouraged to form teams to propose high-risk, high-reward projects based on innovative ideas that emerge during the conference.

“The biggest problems in science no longer fit neatly into boxes we call disciplines or departments but cross boundaries,” said RCSA President & CEO Daniel Linzer. “As science becomes hypercompetitive, Scialog aims to get back to the roots of what science should be: a collaborative, social event where we talk to each other, learn each other’s language, think about what’s possible, and throw out ideas. Some of those ideas might be the seed of something important.”

Congratulations, Laura and Gabe!