"Initially, what attracted me to building complex molecules was the academic challenge," said Wooley, an organic polymer chemist at Washington University. "But really what we've done is create a family of new materials."
For a model of such substances Wooley looks to nature. Like proteins and viruses, her materials are large in molecular terms -- roughly 1,000 would fit across the width of a human hair -- but she aims to design even more exquisite control over function than biological molecules typically have.
On one project, Wooley is collaborating with the U.S. Navy to develop durable ship coatings for that repel barnacles and other marine organisms without polluting the environment. The key is creating "treacherous terrain," she said, a mosaic of molecules whose three-dimensional structures are difficult for organisms to attach themselves to.
Other preliminary but promising research suggests some of her materials could "box up" pharmaceuticals like cancer drugs and transport them safely to their fields of action.
Her research group is also studying degradable polymers, large molecules that fall apart into harmless products under chemical conditions or at times researchers control. Wooley envisions using them someday as internal splints for broken bones, for example -- sturdy materials that will break down naturally as appropriate.
When asked how she ended up in science, Wooley paused, then said she really couldn't remember not wanting to be a scientist. "I didn't know the exact field, the chemistry part, until I went off to college," she said, "but I always knew I wanted to go into science."
Wooley received her undergraduate degree from Oregon State University in 1988 and a Ph.D. from Cornell University in 1993. She is a member of the ACS divisions of polymer chemistry and of polymeric materials/science and engineering.
The ACS Board of Directors established the Arthur C. Cope Scholar Award in 1984 to recognize and encourage excellence among organic chemists including Young Scholars, those under age 36. Cope was an organic chemist and former chairman of ACS. The award consists of a $5,000 prize as well as an unrestricted research grant of $40,000.