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Eric Nacsa receives 2024 NSF CAREER Award

15 February 2024
Eric Nacsa
Credit: Kathryn Harlow / Penn State. Creative Commons

Eric Nacsa, assistant professor of chemistry, has been honored with a Faculty Early Career Development (CAREER) award from the U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF). The CAREER award is NSF’s most prestigious award in support of early-career faculty members who can serve as academic role models in research and education and lead advances in the mission of their department or organization. 

"The Department of Chemistry is thrilled that Eric is being recognized with this award,” said Phil Bevilacqua, distinguished professor and head of chemistry at Penn State. “It reflects Eric’s outstanding and innovative research program, his excellence in teaching, and his outreach to the community." 

The CAREER award will provide five years of funding to support Nacsa’s research studying the development of new chemical catalysts powered by electricity to promote dehydration reactions. These reactions are critical in the creation of commonly used organic compounds, such as medicines, materials, food additives, and perfumes. However, they invariably produce substantial amounts of additional chemical waste. Dehydration reactions that avoid this waste would improve our ability to discover and manufacture medicines, and leading pharmaceutical companies have highlighted these reactions as important research goals. 

“The research community appreciates that catalytic dehydration methods would avoid this waste problem because catalysts promote reactions without being converted into waste, but technical challenges have prevented the development of such methods,” Nacsa explained.  

To address this problem, the Nacsa group designed a system wherein a simple sulfur-containing catalyst promotes dehydration reactions when electricity is passed through a reaction mixture. The NSF funding will allow the group to significantly expand this platform and use it to make higher-value products. 

The funding will also support an in-depth study of an emerging classroom-assessment technique called ‘specifications grading’ in large-enrollment organic chemistry courses. This method of evaluation outlines clear specifications for a passing grade—usually assessed as pass/fail—for groups of assignments that are based on learning outcomes.  

“This technique was designed to improve classroom equity and motivation,” said Nacsa. “These goals are especially important in undergraduate organic chemistry, which is often viewed as a stress-inducing hurdle to weed out students aspiring to careers in health such as medicine, veterinary practice, or dentistry. But studies offering to conclusively answer whether specifications grading achieves these goals have not been performed. We will perform these landmark studies, which will require controlled experimental conditions and large class sizes. Collaboration with outstanding Penn State Chemistry faculty, teaching professors Joseph Houck and Jackie Bortiatynski, are critical elements of this proposal. Particular credit goes to Dr. Houck, who is spearheading this effort.” 

Nacsa was previously granted a Doctoral New Investigator Award from the American Chemical Society Petroleum Research Fund in 2022.  

Prior to joining the faculty at Penn State in 2019, Nacsa was a National Institutes of Health postdoctoral fellow at Princeton University. His postdoctoral advisor, David MacMillan, won the 2021 Nobel Prize in Chemistry. Nacsa earned a bachelor’s degree in chemistry at Harvey Mudd College in 2010 and a doctoral degree in chemistry from Columbia University in 2015. 


Media Contacts
Kathryn Harlow
Chemistry Communications Coordinator
Eric Nacsa
Assistant Professor of Chemistry