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Distinguished Service Award Recipient Andrei Tokmakoff ’89 (Chemistry)



ater is known as an essential property for living. Andrei Tokmakoff ’89 (Chemistry) sees it as much more.

The Henry G. Gale Distinguished Service Professor in the Department of Chemistry at the University of Chicago leads a research group of nearly a dozen doctoral students and post-doctoral trainees. Dubbed The Tokmakoff Group, they study the properties of, and the molecules that dissolve in, water, such as proteins.

Sounds easy, right?

“You would think we know a lot about water chemistry and biology, but it’s very hard to study at a molecular level,” says Tokmakoff, who received the Distinguished Alumni Award from the Sacramento State Alumni Association and the University. “Dissolving molecules change their structure rapidly.”

In response, Tokmakoff says the group is developing an ultrafast camera that captures how H2O’s molecular structure changes over time. The camera’s shutter speed is defined by laser technology that creates extremely short pulses of infrared light.

Although individual atoms are tough to see, Tokmakoff says studying the light going through the water sample provides enough information to recreate the molecular structure.

It’s a complex challenge, which is right up his alley.

“I’m fascinated by these and other problems in physical chemistry and biophysics, because it’s exploring the unknown,” Tokmakoff says. “I don’t think of it as much different than scientists studying the deep sea or distant stars and planets.”

Tokmakoff’s research has received high praise from his peers in chemical physics and biophysics. His accolades include the Ernest K. Plyler Prize for Molecular Spectroscopy from the American Physical Society, the David and Lucile Packard Fellowship for Science and Engineering, and the National Fresenius Award.

His academic career in chemistry has taken him across the world. After earning his doctorate from Stanford, Tokmakoff received a research fellowship at Technical University, Munich. He proceeded to National Science Foundation postdoctoral fellowships at the University of Chicago and James Franck Institute, and UC Berkeley and the Lawrence Berkeley National Lab. Tokmakoff eventually made his way to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he was the Robert T. Haslam and Bradley Dewey Professor of Chemistry.

He comes from a family of Hornets. His father, the late George Tokmakoff, was a history professor at Sac State for many years. His sister Larisa Castillo ’95 (English) and brother-in-law Paul Castillo ’95 (Accountancy) are alumni of the University.

“I hope this award can raise awareness about how valuable Sac State is as an educational institution for Northern California,” Tokmakoff says. “There are tremendous opportunities to turn your Sac State training into top level careers and leadership positons in many different areas including science.”

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