Featured Research: NMR Spectroscopy

When Dennis Curran has a problem, he knows where to turn for help in locating the solution: Damodaran Krishnan, director of the Nuclear Magnetic Resonance (NMR) facility.

Curran, Distinguished Service Professor and Bayer Professor of Chemistry, has collaborated with Krishnan and his group several times since Krishnan assumed the director’s role 11 years ago. Curran credits the excellence of Krishnan’s work – in conjunction with the caliber of the instruments offered in the facility – with advancing his research on several projects.

“We can do experiments that we couldn’t do [by] ourselves because we aren’t knowledgeable enough,” Curran notes. “He really knows, at a level well above us, the kinds of experiments that can be brought to bear to solve our problems.”

The first project Curran and Krishnan worked on together was a cancer-fighting molecule, dictyostatin, as part of a three-way project with Emory University designed to better understand how the molecule worked. The Emory group created computational models of the molecule’s shape, but to do so, they needed NMR data for their calculations. Curran’s group synthesized dictyostatin for Krishnan, who collected the data for Emory. The group published a paper on its results in 2011.

Krishnan estimated that the NMR facility looks at 50 to 100 compounds each day. If the project is straightforward enough, he trains faculty, postdoctoral students, and graduate students to use the instruments. When the task becomes more complex, Krishnan – who also is a research professor of chemistry – takes a more active role.

In 2013, Curran brought him just such a project, when he was trying to predict the spectra of some relatively complicated compounds.

“We made some simple models, and they were so similar that we couldn’t tell them apart. We thought it was impossible to do our predictions. But we got together with Damodaran, and he had some suggestions about how we could tell them apart,” Curran recalls.

“He did the experiments in collaboration with my student that answered all those questions,” identifying tiny differences in the models and where they came from,” Curran says. “He basically saved our idea.”

Once the models worked, Curran’s group knew what to predict with them. A paper resulting from that project was published in the Journal of the American Chemical Society in 2013.

“This is typical of the way that we collaborate: we have a problem, and we know how to use the NMR, but we’re not experts. So we don’t know the solutions to our own problem,” explains Curran. “He knows the solutions, but he doesn’t know our problem.” But by working together, they yield interesting research.

“It’s a wonderful synergy. I cannot do what they are doing,” and vice-versa, says Krishnan. “So this kind of collaboration moves things forward.”

Pitt’s combination of state-of-the-art instrumentation and a knowledgeable NMR director create a powerful scientific resource, says Curran.

“The instruments are only as good as the people we have to work with. I could have a race car, but it doesn’t do me any good if I don’t have anybody who knows how to run a race car … He’s not just offering a service, he’s solving problems for us. He has done experiments that other people have not done.” 


NMR Spectroscopy Lab