Gary B. Schuster: Class of 1934 Distinguished Professor

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Georgia Tech has selected Gary B. Schuster as the 2017 recipient of the Class of 1934 Distinguished Professor Award. Schuster is the Vassar Woolley Professor Emeritus in the School of Chemistry and Biochemistry.

The award recognizes sustained outstanding achievement in teaching, research, and service. It is the highest honor Georgia Tech bestows upon faculty members.

Schuster is rare in sustaining outstanding contributions in multiple capacities. As a researcher, teacher, and university administrator, he has achieved exceptional levels of excellence that most other people could manage in just one role. On top of that, Schuster has been an indefatigable advocate for the scientific enterprise.

Scholarly Research

Schuster’s research has been primarily in organic and bioorganic chemistry. His work has been ground-breaking in several research areas. Here are a few examples:

  • The chemistry behind the familiar the glow of fireflies, chemiluminescence, is well- understood because of discoveries by Schuster. Chemiluminescent clinical assays are now used extensively in clinical and hospitals laboratories.
  • The range of practical polymerizations inducible by light expanded because of Schuster’s discovery of sensitizers in the visible region of light. Previously, photosensitizers induced polymerization only in the ultraviolet region, which is impractical for commercial applications. Schuster and coworkers were awarded 12 U.S. patents for the visible-light polymerization sensitizers, which have been commercialized.
  • Determining the lifetime of singlet oxygen became possible with a laser spectrometer Schuster built. Singlet oxygen plays important roles in biochemical processes, but its study was made difficult by its fleeting existence. Experiments using the laser spectrometer showed that it is possible to extend the lifetime of singlet oxygen by as much as 20 times.
  • Schuster’s elucidation of DNA damage by long-range electron transfer and its role in mutation explained several aspects of DNA oxidative damage. Schuster published several important – and widely cited – papers on the implications of this process. Thomson Reuters identified this aspect of Schuster’s work as “likely to be in contention for a Nobel Prize.”

Lately, Schuster has turned to nanotechnology, aiming to use DNA in self-assembly of functional nanomaterials. Specifically, he has assembled a “tool kit” of DNA nucleotides that are linked to monomers of conducting polymers. Polymerization of the monomers would form a conducting polymer on a DNA scaffold.

Although this project is still at an early stage, Schuster has made a DNA-directed nanowire by spontaneous assembly. It is too soon to know, but if this self-assembly approach can be used to make devices such as diodes or transistors, the possibilities are limitless.

A Natural Teacher

Anyone who has met Schuster knows that he is a natural teacher. He has graduated 56 Ph.D. students and trained 35 postdoctoral research associates. These coworkers have moved on to successful careers in academia, industry, and government.

When Schuster came back to the School of Chemistry and Biochemistry full-time, he volunteered to teach organic chemistry, one of the more demanding courses. His efforts in this course have been regularly recognized by the “Thanks for Being a Great Teacher Program” of the Center for Teaching and Learning.

Beyond classroom teaching, Schuster led a task force to assess the school’s curricula and recommend revisions. The project yielded the Pre-Health Science tracks, which have been implemented. The process took about 18 months, but it worked. Now the School of Chemistry and Biochemistry has curricula that are much more responsive to the needs and aspirations of our undergraduate majors.

Leadership at Georgia Tech

Schuster served Georgia Tech administratively in various capacities – as dean of the College of Sciences, provost, and interim president. In all these roles, Schuster demonstrated thoughtful, pragmatic leadership. For the College of Sciences, his role as the dean was the most consequential. As dean, Schuster transformed the College of Sciences, positioning it as a full partner in advancing the mission and vision of Georgia Tech.

Schuster came to Georgia Tech during a period of rapid change. The College of Sciences had just been established, signaling the key role the sciences and mathematics would play in Tech’s growth into an internationally recognized leader in teaching, research, and technology transfer. Schuster joined Tech in 1994 as the first dean of the College of Sciences and as a professor of chemistry and biochemistry.

The new college was expected to contribute directly to building Tech’s reputation as a global leader in research, education, and technology development. Schuster approached this goal through multiple paths focusing on excellence and commitment to providing the resources that constituents need to succeed.

One path was to foster cooperation between College of Sciences and the College of Engineering through buildings housing interdisciplinary teams addressing related problems. From this initiative emerged the Parker H. Petit Institute for Bioengineering and Biosciences Building, the Ford Environmental Science and Technology Building, the Molecular Science and Engineering Building, and the Engineered Biosystems Building.

Because people are key to success, Schuster went after the best faculty and students for Georgia Tech. He attracted established scientists to Georgia Tech, including Jean-Luc Bredas, Mostafa El-Sayed, Mark Hay, and Seth Marder. He helped accelerate the development of promising young faculty members, and he aggressively recruited new junior faculty members, as well as undergraduate and graduate students.

He reformed science and mathematics curricula to be responsive to modern needs; he helped create professional, interdisciplinary M.S. degrees; and he ratcheted the growth of Ph.D. programs. 

To help generate additional resources, Schuster established the College of Sciences Development Office and the College of Sciences Advisory Board, engaging with both to create chaired professorships, scholarships, and fellowships. His successful fund-raising efforts are evident in numerous fellowships, scholarships, laboratories, and structures that are named for friends and alumni of the College of Sciences.

Beyond Georgia Tech

As a scientist, Schuster served in various capacities to advance the scientific enterprise, especially that of chemistry. He organized conferences and symposia and served on editorial advisory boards of major publications.

His major contributions derive from his service to the American Chemical Society (ACS). This professional society serves the international chemistry and chemical engineering communities through publication of journals and other information services. For eight years, Schuster served on the governing board that oversees these enterprises.

In recognizing his distinguished service, ACS noted Schuster’s unique insights and wealth of expertise and thanked him for his “strategic guidance, probing questions, astute observations, and pragmatic suggestions.”

“It is an honor to be recognized with the 2017 Class of 1934 Distinguished Professor Award,” Schuster says. “None of what I have accomplished was done alone.  Everything that I have achieved is a result of the support, hard work, and creative efforts of my students and colleagues. I owe them and Georgia Tech a debt of gratitude for their contributions and friendship.” 


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