Foley adds AAAS Fellowship to list of accomplishments

The MU professor and administrator was honored for his work with nanoporous carbons and campus involvement.

Hank Foley fills a diverse set of roles — researcher, mentor, scientist, inventor and administrator. First and foremost, he calls himself a chemist and a professor.

He can now add American Association for the Advancement of Science Fellow to that list.

A pioneer in his field, Foley has worked on developing carbon sieves for 30 years. One metaphor he uses to describe his work is a pasta sieve. Just as one would use a sieve to separate pasta from water without wasting any of the food, Foley developed a method of controlling the precise pore sizes of carbon molecules.

Carbon acts as a catalyst in reactions and is used to separate molecules. When the carbon pore size matches the size of the reaction and product molecules, researchers can avoid wasting materials.

This research is one of the reasons Foley said he believes he was selected as a fellow in the chemistry section.

AAAS exists to advance all fields of science, from physical to chemical to social sciences, and to build an international community of researchers. In 2014, 401 fellows were selected.

AAAS Senior Governance Associate Kelly O’Brien said in an email Foley was selected “for distinguished contributions to the synthetic and physical chemistry of nanoscale carbons and nanoporous membranes, and for outstanding service in university administration.”

Foley remembers trying to read the association’s journal, “Science,” in high school. Thirty years later, he’s still an avid reader and has even had his own work published in the prestigious journal.

His success took hard work and a little bit of luck.

While he was a Ph.D. student at Penn State in the ’80s, Foley discovered that the scientist considered the world’s expert on nanoporous carbons worked at the same university. The researcher Phillip Walker wrote a few papers on the then-groundbreaking topic. Foley describes him as an “expert pioneer.”

Not soon after, Foley was hired by one of Walker’s Ph.D. students. His first job was an industrial position working at the same manufacturing company as Walker, American Cyanamid.

Foley found the work so interesting that he devoted his career to it. Even after 30 years in the same field, he isn’t tired of the possibilities.

“It was hard to figure out how to limit what I wanted to do, and so, even to this day, I continue to think of new things that I want to do,” he said. “It’s just a hugely interesting and exciting area of research for me.”

In total, Foley has published more than 120 articles and has 15 patents under his name. His research opened up a new field of study. Others have referenced his work with nanoporous carbons approximately 4,200 times since he started in 1989.

“It really took off,” he said. “We kind of opened up the field, and people followed in.”

In some of his papers, Foley collaborates with students. He said mentoring Ph.D. students is “the most rewarding aspect of the job.”

Foley said he tries to give his students freedom. He lets them make their own mistakes and then meets with them to find where things went wrong. Usually, he said, it’s a process of working together to solve a problem.

He said the hardest part of being a student is working through the first big problem. Students remember their experience getting over their first hurdle through discussion or postulations when something unexpected happens in research.

“It’s the hardest thing you’ve ever done, but then you can do it again and again,” Foley said. “Once they get through the first one, they kind of have the hang of it and they’re off to the races.”

Foley is most proud of the research that resulted from being unable to solve a problem with his own Ph.D. adviser, Greg Geoffroy.

While working on his Ph.D. thesis in 1982, he published his first big paper after tying together photochemistry, synthesis and kinetics in a solution he wasn’t looking for.

Geoffroy said he saw potential in Foley from the beginning. Out of 50 Ph.D. students, he was always in the top three.

“His brilliance and his intense desire and motivation to have an impact are the two key ingredients to have a successful career,” Geoffroy said.

Foley’s role on campus extends far from the laboratory.

As well as holding a position as a tenured professor in the chemical engineering department, Foley is the senior vice chancellor for research and graduate studies and the executive vice president for academic affairs.

He said it’s difficult to balance his roles on campus, but he makes an effort to stay involved in science. He works with a handful of Ph.D. students each year and is always open to collaborate with others.

“I’m still writing papers, and I try to keep my hand in research,” he said. “But it’s pretty hard to do both.”

Foley came to MU a year and a half ago after working at Penn State and the University of Delaware. At Penn State, he became the department head of chemical engineering and then the first dean of information sciences and technology.

Tom Mallouk, his colleague of 14 years at Penn State, said he appreciates Foley’s ability to balance his research with administrative duties.

“I think that was part of the magic with Hank,” he said. “He’s a very unusual university administrator in that he maintained that very close connection with the science … and with students as well.”

Mallouk said Foley steered Penn State’s research program into the 21st century.

Foley was the first to recognize the importance of energy-efficient architecture and implemented new technology in the buildings at Penn State. He also recognized that a university research program should connect with industry while supporting pure scientific research, Mallouk said.

Foley constructed a similar plan to connect the research at MU with the rest of the state and the nation as a whole. He took Missouri’s unique combination of scientific interests, including agriculture, biotechnology and nuclear science, as inspiration.

“The single biggest change is to recognize that ownership of invaluable intellectual property is not valuable,” he said. “It’s more valuable for us to build relationships with entrepreneurs and companies to try to fund students and educate them in the sciences.”

Science may be why Foley entered the field, but he said getting students to connect their research with the rest of the community is the most rewarding aspect.

“It’s just astonishing that we as faculty members get paid to basically mentor other people who want to become scientists and do something we probably would do on our own as a hobby if we couldn’t do it as a career,” Foley said. “So it’s a fantastic life in a lot of ways.”

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