In Memoriam: Jeffery A. Byers

The award-winning professor and researcher in sustainable chemistry strived to inspire young people to science

Professor of Chemistry Jeffery A. Byers, an award-winning researcher in sustainable chemistry who strived to inspire both budding college- and high school-age scientists, died on August 18. He was 45.

A visitation and celebration of life event for Dr. Byers will be held on September 10 from 3-5 p.m. in Gasson 112.

Jeff Byers

Jeffery A. Byers

Dr. Byers, who joined the Boston College Chemistry Department in 2011, focused his research on novel or underdeveloped organotransition metal chemistry and its catalytic application to useful processes in the fields of organic chemistry, inorganic chemistry, and materials science. A major area of interest in his laboratory was the development of new synthetic techniques for the production of novel copolymers useful as traditional engineering polymers, biodegradable polymers, or polymers useful for biomedical applications.

As he explained in a 2015 interview with the Boston College Chronicle, such polymers could be strong enough to be used in everyday products such as plastic bottles. The process could ultimately help reduce the paper products waste stream and reduce the harmful environmental impacts of less degradable plastic products, he said.

Another area of interest for Dr. Byers and his team was the development of cross coupling reactions involving earth-abundant transition metal catalysts that are less expensive and toxic than state-of-the-art catalysts, and the use of transition metal catalysts to formic acid and/ or methanol—a process that would provide a means to store and transport hydrogen, a leading candidate to replace fossil fuels as a sustainable and renewable energy source.

Dr. Byers’ work earned him coveted honors: In 2015, he received a National Science Foundation CAREER Award—the agency’s most prestigious grant for junior faculty—and Cottrell Scholar Award from the Research Corporation for Science Advancement, America’s second-oldest foundation and the first devoted wholly to science. In 2017, the American Chemical Society selected Dr. Byers for its PMSE Young Investigator Award.

“The research is a little bit off the beaten path,” he told Chronicle upon announcement of the CAREER award. “So it’s been challenging to convince people we can do what we do, but people see what we’ve accomplished so far and this grant provides some validation for our approach. I’m excited to see where this takes us.”

Through a $1.8 million award from the NSF Center for Chemical Innovation, Dr. Byers and fellow Chemistry Professor Dunwei Wang joined a team of scientists to form the NSF Center for Integrated Catalysis. Its goal is to develop the fundamental chemistry to achieve the synthesis of sequence-defined polymeric materials from pools of abundant feedstocks in a single reactor using spatially separated and switchable catalysts. The expected scientific impact of this project will reach the catalysis community and chemical industry with applications based on a new paradigm in chemical catalysis.

Along with his accomplishments as a researcher, Dr. Byers was equally respected as a teacher and mentor who sought to encourage young people to study the sciences. Among the courses he taught were Honors Modern Chemistry and Honors Organic Chemistry, both part of a program to introduce talented STEM students to concepts in general, organic, and biochemistry. He also was on the faculty committee for BC’s Beckman Scholars fellowship program, which supports outstanding undergraduate students in the sciences.

Reflecting on his undergraduate years shortly before his 2014 graduation, David Cote cited Dr. Byers as one of the faculty members who had an impact on his BC education: “I learned so much in his lab and gained invaluable experience that will help me in my future endeavors. His was one of my favorite and most intellectually challenging classes, and he kindly wrote my recommendation for my medical school application. He was really invested in my success and I appreciate all that he has done for me.”    

When graduate student Ashley Biernesser was selected for an NSF Graduate Research Fellowship in 2013, she noted in a Chronicle interview that Dr. Byers had encouraged her to revise and resubmit her application after NSF reviewers gave her positive comments last year. Another NSF fellowship winner, Julia Curley ’16, said that working in Dr. Byers’ lab, “I learned how to be a scientist and that’s where I learned I wanted to pursue graduate studies in chemistry.”

Dr. Byers and departmental colleague Professor Eranthie Weerapana also established a pre-collegiate summer institute for high school students, known as “P2P: Paper to Plastics.” The eight-week program brings high school students, predominately those underrepresented in the sciences, to campus for a program that combines mentoring, research, career exploration, and college preparation. P2P offers participants an opportunity to work closely with undergraduates, who guide them through the technical aspects of the research and serve as role models to encourage considering careers in science and technology.

“Everyone in the department will miss Jeff’s affectionate passion for chemistry,” said Wang, the department chair. “As a knowledgeable chemist whose expertise extends across the subfields of inorganic, organic, and polymer chemistry, Jeff always had great answers to all questions. In classrooms and beyond, his dedication to his students was a palpable force. In addition to working tirelessly to modernize our curricula at all levels, he was a devoted advocate for underrepresented students. As a collaborator, he was the best colleague you can ask for: Keen, passionate, hardworking, and masterful in communicating his science. It was him who led me to the wonderful concept of sustainable plastics.

“To us all, his passing was just too soon; there is so much we would like to accomplish together with him.”

Associate Professor of Chemistry Jia Niu, who collaborated with Dr. Byers, said, “As an extremely talented scientist, Jeff's fundamental contributions span a diverse array of research domains within chemistry. His impact extends to areas such as organometallic chemistry employing earth-abundant metals, the advancement of biodegradable and sustainable plastics, and the innovation of highly efficient transition-metal catalysts achieved through molecular encapsulation. These remarkable achievements have not only reshaped the landscape of chemical science but have also served as inspirations among fellow researchers and engineers, motivating them to tackle these crucial challenges in science and for our society.

“On the personal level, you cannot ask for a better colleague and friend than Jeff. He consistently radiated support and encouragement to those around him. Jeff's passing is devastating: The world lost an unparalleled chemist, and we have lost a great friend and colleague.”

A native of Las Cruces, NM, Dr. Byers received a bachelor of arts degree in chemistry Washington University in St. Louis and a doctorate in inorganic chemistry from the California Institute of Technology. He completed his training with a postdoctoral position in organic chemistry at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Dr. Byers’ professional honors, appointments, and memberships included the Sigma Xi Scientific Research Honor Society and American Chemical Society.

Dr. Byers is survived by his wife, Crystal Shih Byers; his mother, Eleanor; sisters, Vickie Byers and Jennifer Masters; and nieces and nephews. He was predeceased by his father, John Byers.