For Peter Stang, it all started with experiments on a home chemistry set.
Growing up in 1950s Hungary, Stang had access to any chemical he wanted from his local drugstore. As a teenager, he was already producing his own slow-burning gun powder. Fast forward a few decades, and experimenting and discovery are still a major part of his life as a professor of chemistry at the University of Utah.
“What drives me is curiosity,” Stang says, “simple basic curiosity.”
That curiosity has led him to make important discoveries on the nature of molecular self-assembly that have promising medical and industrial applications. The White House recently recognized his research efforts with the National Medal of Science, the nation’s highest award a scientist or engineer can receive.
Stang is only the fourth Utah scientist to win this medal or a related award. Previous recipients of the National Medal of Science include Henry Eyring in 1966 and Mario Capecchi in 2002—five years before he won the Nobel Prize.
The German-born Stang has pioneered new methods of replicating the self-assembly of molecules. His research provides insight on how large molecules are constructed in nature from a mixture of chemical building blocks and how that process can be duplicated artificially in a laboratory.
“It’s a little bit like a Lego set,” Stang says. “You can build a variety of things out of a Lego set. Nature uses this approach—self-assembly—to make all the important biological molecules that living organisms depend upon.”
Potential applications for Stang’s research run the spectrum from medical to industrial. For example, molecular cages could be constructed to house cancer-fighting drugs that are released into cancer cells through targeted delivery. They could also improve the refinement process of crude oil, so that everything from gasoline to heating oil is produced more efficiently.
Seeing the potential results of his research is an exciting thing for Stang because he knows what an important role science plays in the development of the modern world.
“Basic science [provides] the individual roots out of which modern technology and engineering comes, [which] affects our everyday life,” says Stang.
For Stang, receiving the National Medal of Science is one highlight among many during a distinguished career in chemistry.
His family fled Hungary during a failed uprising against Communist rule in 1957. After completing higher education in the United States, he joined the University of Utah faculty in 1969 and earned distinguished professor status in 1992. Stang served as dean of the College of Science from 1997 to 2007 and, since 2002, he has served as the editor of the Journal of the American Chemical Society.