By Amanda Campanaro
Human beings enjoy being at the top of the food chain, but our precarious existence actually depends on a delicate chemical interaction at the very bottom.
Dr. Tomoyasu Mani, IMS associated faculty member and Assistant Professor in Chemistry, is exploring innovative ways to utilize the process of photochemistry and radiation chemistry, two sub-fields that analyze chemical reactions initiated by light and radiation, respectively.
“Chemistry is central to everything,” Dr. Mani says. Specifically, photochemistry deals with the chemical reactions initiated by light. “Without photochemistry, we would not be here, as the food chain starts with photosynthesis by plants,” explains Dr. Mani. Photochemistry is also important in many other areas that include optical imaging in biomedicine and solar energy technologies, by which we try to mimic photosynthesis.
Radiation chemistry, on the other hand, deals with the reactions initiated by radiation. “While it may not have attracted much attention in recent years, it is a very important branch of chemistry and can provide us with very unique information that we cannot obtain by other methods,” Dr. Mani says. “I would like to understand in detail how light and radiation interacts with matter (molecules), and how we can take advantage of light for use.”
Dr. Mani, who joined UConn’s Chemistry Department in 2016, is currently working on four research projects. “We are trying to gain insight on the electron and energy transfer processes upon photoexcitation of molecules and materials, which are key chemical reactions in harvesting and storing sunlight,” he explains.
One of the initiatives involves probing photo-induced electron transfer reactions by using vibrational spectroscopy. “We are using ultrafast infrared spectroscopy to track the motions of electrons in model molecules with femtosecond time resolution,” Dr. Mani says. IR spectroscopy has become a powerful tool for studying electron dynamics of molecules because of its superb sensitivity to the local molecular or surrounding environments. “Application of ultrafast IR spectroscopy to study electron transfer reactions enables us to obtain the insight at the molecular (or vibrational) level.”
Another project focuses on the production of triplet excited states in organic molecules in an unconventional way. “Triplet excited states in organic molecules are important, but the current usages are limited because we cannot make them in organic conjugated molecules efficiently upon photoexcitation,” he says. “We are trying to explore an unconventional way of producing triplet excited states so that we can better utilize them in various applications from organic synthesis, to biomedicine, to energy sciences.”
As a physical chemist, Dr. Mani combines various techniques, using a research approach that seamlessly transitions between synthetic chemistry and physical chemistry. “We combine molecular design/synthesis with computational chemistry and spectroscopic techniques including ultrafast laser spectroscopy (visible to IR) and pulse radiolysis,” he explains.
He recently installed the new laser and spectrometers, which have started producing some promising results. “It is an exciting time and I am looking forward to advancing the research projects with students,” he says.
In addition to his research, Dr. Mani teaches Physical Chemistry for graduate students in Fall and a Physical Chemistry Laboratory for undergraduate students in Spring. Currently, three undergraduate students are working in his lab: James Hampsey, sixth semester Chemical Engineering major, Andrew Boudreu, second semester Chemistry major, and Cato Laurencin, eighth semester chemistry major.
When asked how working with students influences his own research, Dr. Mani says the new angles they bring to the subject are very refreshing. “They are energetic and can bring new ideas or fresh perspectives to the questions. When they are new to the field, they sometimes ask very interesting questions from an angle I’ve never looked at before as students are trying to connect the material with what they know.” He adds that as the students learn more, their questions are based on a solid foundation of knowledge, which can help him think more deeply into the questions.
“UConn is one of the finest teaching and research institutions in the US. It also provides me the support to grow as a researcher and a teacher.”
Before joining UConn, Dr. Mani worked for two years as a Goldhaber fellow at Brookhaven National Laboratory, where he worked in the Electron- and Photo-Induced Processes for Molecular Energy Conversion Group directed by Dr. John R. Miller. Prior to that he earned his B.S. in Biochemistry at the University of Texas at Dallas in 2009, and his Ph.D. in Biochemistry and Molecular Biophysics at the University of Pennsylvania in 2013.
When asked whether there were any professors to influenced his career decision, Dr. Mani said: “I was fortunate to have many inspirational professors. Specifically, I greatly appreciate how my undergraduate advisor, Prof. A. Dean Sherry at the University of Texas at Dallas and Southwestern Medical Center, gave me a lot of freedom as an undergraduate, allowing me to pursue some ideas I came up with. He gave me that chance as an undergraduate and some confidence to further my career in research.”