By Jeannie Kever
An engineer from the University of Houston has received the state’s top honor in engineering for his pioneering discoveries about how crystals form and how they can be dissolved.
Jeffrey Rimer, Abraham E. Dukler professor of chemical engineering at the UH Cullen College of Engineering, has received the 2020 Edith and Peter O’Donnell Award in Engineering from The Academy of Medicine, Engineering and Science of Texas, known as TAMEST.
Rimer was cited for his pioneering work in using crystals to improve treatments for malaria and kidney stones. This is just one outcome of his efforts to better understand the process of crystallization, which also is central to drug development, petrochemical processing, the design of new materials and other processes.
He likens the field of crystal engineering to solving a puzzle. “A lot of these systems are complex,” he said. “There are a lot of ways that crystals grow, so we have to be creative in how we approach it. You never fully solve the puzzle, but you can fill in enough pieces to see the overall picture.”
The O’Donnell Awards were established in 2005 to recognize Texas’ most promising researchers, whose work is judged by professional performance, creativity and resourcefulness. They were formally presented Jan. 8 at the TAMEST 2020 conference in Dallas.
“Dr. Rimer is an internationally recognized expert in crystal engineering whose frontier research has produced drugs for treating kidney stones and malaria as well as uncovered chemical techniques in the petrochemical industry,” said TAMEST Board President Amelie Ramirez.
Rimer reported in 2016 that a natural fruit extract can dissolve the most common component of human kidney stones, suggesting a major advance in drug development. Human clinical trials are underway and research to find new drug candidates ongoing.
He and collaborators more recently have discovered what happens at the molecular level when antimalarial drugs are combined, work which not only suggested the mechanisms by which the drugs interact but, more broadly, suggests a new platform that can more quickly screen molecules for their potential in drug development.
Joseph W. Tedesco, Elizabeth D. Rockwell Dean of the UH Cullen College of Engineering, said Rimer’s work is an illustration of the creativity required for breakthroughs in engineering.
“Dr. Rimer’s work in crystal engineering, whether it is applied to the discovery of new drugs or to improve the efficiency and safety of petrochemical processes, has pushed the envelope in terms of what we know about crystal formation and dissolution,” he said. “He is answering fundamental engineering questions but finding very real solutions to modern problems.”
Rimer received the 2018 Norman Hackerman Award in Chemical Research, given by the Welch Foundation to chemical scientists working in Texas and designed to encourage the fundamental understanding of chemistry. He also received the 2016 Owens Corning Early Career Award and 2017 FRI/John G. Kunesh Award from the American Institute of Chemical Engineers, as well as multiple teaching and research excellence awards from UH.
His research is recognized for its focus at the nexus of fundamental and applied science.
“We’re right at the boundary,” he said. “Often when you do fundamental work, it never sees the light of day, and that’s fine, because your discoveries can move the field forward. But when that work can be translated into a new drug, you realize what you do can have a benefit to society. It is a very humbling feeling.”