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Michael Katz

Chemist hockey fan hits big league

June 10, 2010

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Michael Katz went to work at Chicago’s Northwestern University with his head hung low last month after the city’s Blackhawks trounced his hometown Vancouver Canucks in the hockey playoffs.

But the brilliant young chemist, who’s one of two SFU Governor General’s gold medallists for scholastic excellence this year, has nothing to be ashamed of when it comes to his own performance.

Currently on a Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council post-doctoral fellowship at Northwestern in one the world’s leading chemistry departments, Katz is a top draft pick to ultimately become a major-league university professor.

“I want to learn as much as I can here,” he says, “and then hopefully come home and do some interesting chemistry in Canada.”

Katz’s PhD thesis had two parts. The first documented his creation of an ammonia-sensing compound that can detect minute amounts of the caustic vapour at harmful levels well below the minimum detectible limit of the human nose (50 ppm).

His ammonia sensor has generated several international patents and commercial interest for applications such as environmental workplace monitoring and medical diagnosis.

The second part involved designing polymers to manipulate birefringence, the splitting of a light ray into two parallel rays when it passes through materials such as calcite crystals.

That work, too, has spawned patents and commercial interest for applications including telecommunications and television and movie film cameras. In Chicago, Katz is working on dyes for a new class of low-cost dye-sensitized solar cells that could revolutionize solar-energy use.

Katz credits teachers Ray Marshall at North Van’s Carson Graham high school, Ken Tyers at Capilano University and SFU’s Lanny Leznoff for feeding his passion for science.

But he adds “both my parents are scientists and my aunt and uncle are chemists so it’s almost like the family business.”

As for the Hawks whipping the Canucks, he says, “I had the last laugh when Canada beat the U.S. for the (Olympic) gold medal.”

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