Founded in 1876 and chartered by the U.S. Congress, the American Chemical Society (ACS) is one of the world’s largest scientific organizations, with more than 170,000 individuals representing a global community that spans 140 countries. At its national meeting in San Francisco in August, thousands of chemistry professionals met to share ideas and advance scientific and technical knowledge.
The event’s poster competition attracts some of the best academic minds in the field. After deciding to attend the ACS National Meeting following encouragement from advisors Benjamin Levine and Arshad Mehmood, Zain Zaidi ’26, a sophomore in Stony Brook’s Department of Chemistry in the College of Arts and Sciences, threw his hat in the ring alongside his older and more experienced peers. Despite the fact that he was competing against more senior students from around the country, Zaidi was judged to have given the best poster presentation by the ACS Division of Computational Chemistry.
“It’s a very intimidating environment and there’s thousands of attendees,” said Zaidi. “After walking around a while and getting set up, I kind of relaxed and realized, ‘okay, I actually do belong here. I’ve been doing this work for almost a year now.’”
Zaidi’s poster, Tuning the Excited State Intramolecular Proton Transfer in Oxazoles, highlighted research focusing on understanding a class of light-triggered chemical reactions that is important in biology, certain types of sensors, white-light-emitting materials, optical memory, sunscreen and photostable materials. An everyday example of the science can be found in fluorescent lights.
“They emit UV, but the coating on top actually changes to visible light,” he said. “That process is called phosphorescence. If you look at highlighter material, that’s a fluorescent material. There are a lot of interesting dynamics and applications for this, especially in the biological fields. I study how these molecules evolve in space. How do they twist and turn? How does it change the fluorescence of a molecule? And is there a way to increase or decrease the fluorescence? That’s what these simulations are trying to do. This is my passion. I’ve learned about it for a while and it’s exciting to apply it in actual research.”
“Zain joined my research group in fall 2022 immediately upon arriving on campus as a new freshman in chemistry,” said Benjamin Levine, Institute for Advanced Computational Science (IACS) endowed professor of chemistry. “Over the past year, he has made spectacular progress by any standard, but especially for a freshman. This is a reflection of Zain’s intelligence, dedication and skill, and also that of his postdoctoral mentor, Arshad Mehmood, who has led this project.”
Zaidi grew up in the Dallas, TX, suburb of Coppell and was interested in Stony Brook because of its close relationship with nearby Brookhaven National Lab. He said he has nurtured a love of chemistry since he was a child.
“When I was maybe five or six years old, my parents would not let me on the computer and I’d get really bored,” he said. “I had an encyclopedia called the New Book of Knowledge that I would read. I opened the A section and found the entry for alchemy, and read about the Arab author and alchemist Jabir ibn Hayyan. And I was like, ‘man, this is cool, turning things into gold.’ That started my interest in chemistry.”
Zaidi hopes to stay in academia after his studies.
“I’d like to get an MD and PhD,” he said. “I want to be a doctor but also continue pursuing research. That’s my goal.”
Arshad Mehmood, his co-supervisor, says Zaidi’s exceptional intelligence and unwavering dedication to his work provide a solid foundation to make an impact in the field.
“His profound grasp of the research objectives is truly impressive,” said Mehmood, a postdoctoral associate in IACS. “His project holds significant promise in advancing the field by enhancing the light-harvesting capabilities of organic molecules for the development of cutting-edge electroluminescent devices and related applications.”
Zaidi pointed out that science is a collaborative work, and is quick to credit those who helped him.
“This was not just me that won this award,” he said. “It was a collaborative effort. Without Arshad’s guidance or Ben’s help I wouldn’t have been able to do any of this. I’m very thankful for all that. I’m also very thankful for Professor Levine even allowing me to join the group as a freshman and do research I’m so passionate about it.”
— Robert Emproto