June 18, 2019

University of Calgary chemist's distinguished career inspired by 'awesome' teachers

Faculty of Science's Warren Piers honoured with Killam Annual Professorship
Warren Piers, professor, Department of Chemistry, Faculty of Science, has received a prestigious Killam Annual Professor award.

Warren Piers, professor Faculty of Science, has received a prestigious Killam Annual Professor award

Riley Brandt, University of Calgary

Genes no doubt played a role in Dr. Warren Piers, PhD, becoming a chemist. But it was inspirational teachers who sparked his interest in chemistry and helped shape his illustrious career.

Recognized internationally as one of Canada’s top inorganic chemists, Piers is one of five University of Calgary professors awarded prestigious 2019 Killam Annual Professorships for excellence in research and teaching. It is the most recent in a constellation of honours for Piers, who holds a Tier 1 Canada Research Chair in the Mechanisms of Homogenous Catalysts, in the Department of Chemistry in the Faculty of Science.

“I’m very grateful for the recognition and to be associated with the Killam name again,” says Piers, who was a Killam postdoctoral fellow at the California Institute of Technology, received a Killam Research Fellowship while at UCalgary, and has trained Killam-supported students in his laboratory.

Piers’ late father, Edward, was a prominent organic chemist and professor at the University of British Columbia. “I guess through some form of osmosis, I knew what organic chemistry was about, just because I often asked my dad,” Piers says.

However, young Warren, in his first year at the University of Alberta in 1980, started out in biology. Then he took an undergraduate course from “a pretty awesome chemistry teacher,” Prof. Bill Ayer, which prompted him to switch to chemistry. “I was good at it, but it also made a lot of sense to me,” Piers says.

He did so well in his first semester he was put in an advanced laboratory run by organic chemist Margaret-Ann Armour, then one of the few women working in academic science. Armour, who died at 79 in May, became a renowned champion of diversity and women pursuing science, engineering and technology. “It was clear that, through a crusty exterior, she cared deeply about students,” Piers says.

Piers transferred to UBC to complete his undergraduate degree and, at age 26, a PhD. There, one of his father’s colleagues suggested he work with a young assistant professor and inorganic chemist, Prof. Michael Fryzuk — another key mentor in Piers’ career.

Innovator in organometallic chemistry

After starting his independent career at the University of Guelph, Piers joined the University of Calgary in 1995. The Killam Annual Professorship recognizes Piers’ important discoveries for the past 29 years in organometallic chemistry — organic molecules bonded to metal atoms. Many of these organometallic molecules function as powerful catalysts in the chemical reactions that create pharmaceuticals, polymers, plastics and other products.

One of Piers’ earlier innovations occurred in the mid-1990s in hydrosilation chemistry, which employs catalysis to add silicon-hydrogen bonds across carbon-oxygen double bonds. Piers discovered that a non-metal catalyst could be used in place of the commonly used metal catalysts. This was a breakthrough, because non-metals in catalytic reactions are much cheaper, more abundant and less toxic.

His research contributed to the development of a new branch of chemistry research, called “frustrated Lewis pair” catalysis. In fact, one non-metal catalyst, “Piers’ borane,” is named after him and used by many groups worldwide as a reagent in synthetic chemistry.

“I think one of my strengths, particularly early in my career, was an ability to recognize when something was interesting and to pursue it,” he says. “I think that’s key to success especially in synthetic chemistry.”

Proudest of his students’ accomplishments

Although his work has real-world relevance and he holds several patents, he confides: “My real love is in doing curiosity-driven research that looks at mechanisms of chemical reactions in much more detail than you need to develop immediate applications. But that’s the key to tomorrow’s innovations.”

Early in his career, Piers worked in traditional areas of organometallic chemistry, such as olefin polymerization catalysis for the manufacture of tailor-made polyolefin plastics (used in electronics and household appliances, fabric and textiles, building and construction, and industrial and health-care applications). In the past decade, he has focused on exploring earth-abundant transition metals — rather than rare and toxic metals — as catalysts for sustainable renewable energy production.

Piers has written and published more than 240 peer-reviewed papers, many in top journals. His numerous contributions to the academic community include presenting about 250 scientific talks around the world, being associate editor at the journal Dalton Transactions (published by the Royal Society of Chemistry, U.K.), and serving on various grant, fellowship and prize adjudication panels.

He is an elected Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada, the Chemical Institute of Canada, and the Royal Society of Chemistry (U.K.). His many national and international honours include: a Sloan Fellowship; a Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council Steacie Fellowship; the Polanyi Prize in Chemistry; the inaugural Schlenk Lecture Award; a Japan Society for the Promotion of Science Invitation Fellowship; a Humboldt Research Fellowship; and the Royal Society of Chemistry Ludwig Mond Award.

Piers says his greatest source of pride and “the best part of my job” is the more than 100 graduate and undergraduate students and postdocs he has trained, including 25 graduated PhDs and 13 MSc students. His former students are now actively involved in careers in science and innovation, including two who shaped the chemistry division at technology giant Intel Corporation, and others at Nova Chemicals and throughout Calgary’s petroleum sector. “It’s the accomplishments of the students and what they’ve become that are my true legacy.”

“Warren has this incredible ability to make me answer my own questions and hence constantly improve myself," says Lucie Nurdin, a PhD candidate who holds graduate scholarships from Vanier Canada and Alberta Innovates. "His precision, curiosity and motivation are what inspire me every day to push myself and the frontiers of science."

Nominations for the Killam Research and Teaching Awards close Aug. 10, 2019. The Killam Research and Teaching Awards honour outstanding teaching, supervision, and research at the University of Calgary. Nominations are made by your faculty’s dean. To learn more about the awards and how to nominate a scholar, visit the Research website.