James Tour

T. T. and W. F. Chao Professor of Chemistry, Computer Science, and of Materials Science and NanoEngineering

James Tour knows innovation. Whether he is laser-printing graphene onto a coconut, converting a Girl Scout Cookie into graphene, or racing nanocars, he and his lab aim high in their research. “If we are going to create something that has real impact, we have to swing for the fences,” Tour says. “We let other groups do the incremental research. Let’s do the hard stuff.”

Most recently, he and his lab developed a simple way to produce conductive, three-dimensional objects made of graphene foam, a squishy solid that offers new possibilities for energy storage and flexible electronic sensor applications. The results bring graphene and its many uses into the third dimension.

Whatever the breakthrough, students remain central to his efforts. He is particularly dedicated to teaching undergraduates, working to facilitate their moments of discovery. “I do it because, the way I look at it, it’s like I am bringing students to the Grand Canyon for the first time,” James says. “I get so excited to watch their jaws drop when they see something molecular that has real-world implications — it’s highly rewarding to know that I have a role in shaping their interests.”

"Giving to higher education is going to outlast you." — James Tour

Tour works hard to ensure that undergraduates are doing meaningful work. “Our undergraduates in chemistry all spend time working in the laboratory,” he notes. “It's rewarding to feel that I've had a part in their lives, molding them and mentoring them.”

Tour’s graduate students operate in a highly collaborative and creative environment, creating an atmosphere that has been key to major breakthroughs. “I remember when my graduate students first brought me laser-induced graphene,” Tour remarks, “where the laser had missed the substrate and hit the polymer surface and the polymer turned into graphene. Totally unexpected. That was in 2014. We've published over 20 papers on laser-induced graphene since then, and there are now one to two papers a week coming out on laser-induced graphene. It's opened up a whole new area of research for people all around the world.”

Creativity permeates his efforts, as a researcher and a teacher. “As I teach my students, doing science is not just about being smart. The most powerful thing is: How creative are we? Creativity is the thing that distinguishes what we do from other institutions. Creativity, when people read our papers and they say, ‘Wow, I wish I'd have thought of that.’”

Tour is keenly aware that impactful research and a dynamic educational environment calls for philanthropic support. “If we are going to be competitive on an international level, we must have state-of-the-art research facilities made possible by philanthropy,” he says. “Having these facilities is also how we provide meaningful opportunities for our students. If we want to impact the world, it’s important that we give these opportunities to the best students.”

On a deeper level, he believes that higher education is a cause worth supporting. “Giving to higher education is going to outlast you,” he says. “You are providing opportunities for people. Long after you're gone, it's having an impact. How many things can you say that about?”


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