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Faculty Spotlight: James Gaynor

Gaynor PhotoJames Gaynor, an Assistant Professor of Chemistry, joined the Department in Summer 2023. His research focuses on the study of energy and charge transfer between photoexcitation and relaxation using ultrafast spectroscopy. The Gaynor Group aims to unravel critical photochemistry on femtosecond and attosecond time scales.

Why did you choose chemistry as your career path?

In some ways, chemistry sort of found me rather than the inverse. In high school, I actually wanted to be an architect because I was (and still am) very fascinated by structures with both unique aesthetics and that are deceivingly structurally sound. I was the kid always playing with Legos, and I wanted to express my creativity in building things that were both useful and beautiful (two favorites are Frank Lloyd Wright’s Taliesin and Fallingwater houses). Eventually, I found myself in general chemistry as a first-year college student learning VSEPR theory and rediscovering my passion for structures only now all at the molecular level in a much more profound way! This opened the door to chemistry but what really roped me in was my first summer undergraduate research experience at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory. There, I got to work with people from all over the world on interesting problems using amazing instruments – many of which were custom-built. This fueled my deep curiosity about how one can really understand the fundamental and dynamic properties of molecular structures, and what it takes to do so. I would say this curiosity is really why I have continued in chemistry. When I came back to the University of Portland, I took an optics course and my advisor and I got to reassemble the '70s-era laser he used in grad school, which really hooked me on playing with lasers and building experiments out of optical components (these are really just more expensive Legos when you think about it…). As they say, “the rest is history.”

How would you explain your research to someone outside of Chemistry? 

One grand scientific challenge our society faces is having the ability to understand, predict, and ultimately control the flow of energy at the atomic and molecular level. We can create a reservoir of energy in molecules and materials by exciting them with light, but following exactly where that energy goes, and how it moves, in real time is quite demanding. It requires us to take snapshots of the dynamics of electrons and molecular vibrations as they occur and to determine how these motions influence one another. For context, electrons move on timescales known as “attoseconds” and molecular vibrations can be 1000s of times slower. One attosecond is to one second what one second is to roughly 31.5 billion years (~7x the age of the earth). My research group and I develop new experiments that capture the motions of electrons and vibrations on these timescales and reveal how electronic and vibrational motions influence one another while dissipating energy.

Describe potential applications for your research. 

Any area of chemistry that deals with using light to drive a reaction, or some other photoexcited process, in a molecule or a material, likely has something to be understood that explains how a desired property or process is supported by the molecule or material. One aspect of my research deals with using quantum mechanical coherence to create new electronic distributions in molecules which actually drive new outcomes in photochemical reactions. One could imagine this insight being useful in areas such as photocatalysis and plasmonics. Ideally, the knowledge generated from the experiments we are building will inform new molecular-level design rules for how to move energy beginning from the earliest moments that a molecule absorbs a photon of light.

The 2023 - 24 academic year will mark your first year at Northwestern. As you begin this new journey, what is most exciting to you? 

I am thrilled to dive into Northwestern’s thriving and collaborative ecosystem of world-leading research, teaching, and learning – there is no better place for me to be. Working with my students to build our first laboratory and sets of experiments is the most exciting part of the upcoming journey; the labs should be ready for us to install our first laser sometime in September..!!!!

What can students expect when they work in your lab? 

As a new lab, we have a fairly unique opportunity for students to build novel instrumentation and perform world-class ultrafast spectroscopies starting from a blank slate. Especially in the beginning, I will be working with students closely in the lab to help build and perform the first experiments from start to finish. Students can expect to become experts in experimental physical chemistry using ultrafast multidimensional spectroscopies, pioneer new ways of understanding photochemistry, and take on ownership of their work early. They will leave my group having mastered skills in nonlinear optics, instrument design, high/ultra-high vacuum techniques, data analysis, and scientific communication. Students also can expect to help establish a group culture that values diversity, a passion for pushing the boundaries of experimental physical chemistry, and one that enables each team member to pursue their scientific curiosities meaningfully. In the Gaynor Group, we value each team member equally, we work both individually and collectively on various projects, and we hold each other accountable for being good citizens and responsible scientists.

What advice would you give to young researchers considering a career in academia? 

 Do everything you can to foster your own creativity, curiosity, and passion for science and research. Read as much as you can, always write down and revisit ideas that occur to you, and embrace open discussion with as many people as you can on topics that interest you (no matter what their “academic rank” is).

What is something you would like us to know about you that is not on your CV? 

I was an avid soccer player throughout my childhood and I played up through college as a center midfielder and defender. I’m a Liverpool F.C. fan, through and through! My favorite city in the world is Barcelona and my favorite architect of all time is Filippo Brunelleschi.

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