UW News

October 21, 2022

UW’s Dianne Xiao receives Packard Fellowship for research on new materials for sustainable chemical synthesis

Dianne Xiao, a University of Washington assistant professor of chemistry, has been awarded a 2022 Packard Fellowship for Science and Engineering for her research on creating new materials to make chemical reactions that are compatible with renewable energy sources and raw materials.

The Packard Fellowship is awarded to early-career scientists and engineers who are pursuing new areas of research. Each of the 20 new fellows announced Oct. 18 will receive $875,000 in unrestricted funds for use over the next five years.

One of Xiao’s research projects focuses on developing new porous conductors that could help the chemical industry switch to renewable energy sources.

Headshot of smiling woman

Dianne Xiao

“We would really want to use renewable electricity to drive chemical processes,” said Xiao, who is also the Klaus and Mary Ann Saegebarth Endowed Faculty Fellow. “In order to do that, we need materials that not only conduct charge, but can also be engineered to contain specific catalytic sites or binding sites.”

In addition to her research on porous conductors, Xiao’s lab is developing catalytic materials that can convert sustainable starting material, such as biomass, into desired chemicals. The goal is to help shift the chemical industry away from using petroleum as its primary raw material.

Xiao earned her bachelor’s degree from Harvard University in 2011 and her doctorate from the University of California, Berkeley in 2016. She completed her postdoctoral studies at Stanford University before joining the UW faculty in 2019.

The Packard Fellowship, one of the largest nongovernmental research awards, will further Xiao’s work toward a more sustainable future for the chemical industry.

“Whenever you’re starting a research group, there are areas you don’t have total familiarity with,” Xiao said. “It can be hard to get funding, or it can feel hard to break into that area. Having this funding means being able to take intellectual risks, make mistakes and hire people with different expertise. That will allow us to grow and push our research.”

Xiao said she was originally drawn to inorganic chemistry because of a compelling and accessible undergraduate professor — something she keeps in mind as she teaches inorganic chemistry and mentors undergraduate researchers at the UW.

“Inorganic chemists want to learn how to manipulate or transform really simple molecules, like carbon dioxide, nitrogen, water and the smallest hydrocarbons,” Xiao said. “They’re some of the hardest molecules to make react in ways that you want them to, but unlocking their reactivity is the key to a sustainable future. As an undergrad, all of this seemed important and exciting, but I never would’ve gone into inorganic chemistry research, or stayed in it, if I didn’t have great mentors.”

As her career progressed, Xiao also fell in love with synthesizing new molecules and materials.

“Many of the materials we make have beautiful structures, so I think that’s also very appealing,” she said. “It’s an exciting application, but you’re also making materials that have never been made before.”

According to the Office of Research at the UW, Xiao is the 14th faculty member to earn a Packard Fellowship and the fifth from the Department of Chemistry. Xiao is also the fourth Packard Fellow currently on the chemistry faculty, joining Ashleigh Theberge, Brandi Cossairt and Munira Khalil.

For more information, contact Xiao at djxiao@uw.edu.