Rob Knowles named Ross Brown Investigator to fund his 'blue sky, out-of-the-box ideas'

Knowles smiling

Robert Knowles has been named a Ross Brown Investigator, a relatively new honor that celebrates distinguished mid-career faculty and supports their curiosity-driven research in chemistry or physics.

Knowles is one of eight investigators named to the 2024 class. He receives the five-year grant for his proposal to explore a novel hypothesis on the evolution of homochirality — the presence in nature of just one of two mirror-image forms of biomolecules.

“I was really surprised and delighted,” said Knowles of the honor. “It’s a very generous amount of support and will mean a lot to our group over the next few years. It will allow us to do things that we couldn’t do otherwise and support students that we couldn’t support otherwise.

“The thing that’s unique,” he added, “is that the Brown Investigators program really supports blue sky, out-of-the-box ideas that would be very difficult to support through other funding sources because they’re risky. I’m thrilled and humbled that the program will allow us to go forward with our proposal.”

Organic molecules in nature often exist as single enantiomers, a specific arrangement of atoms that is reflected in the molecule’s three-dimensional structure. The physical origins of homochirality and the mechanism by which it initially propagated are not clearly understood despite a multitude of hypotheses. 

Our lab has a new hypothesis that has never been tested before. And so we proposed to see if we could observe this behavior in an experimental setting,” said Knowles. “Now, we will have a chance to look into it.”

The Brown Investigators program was established in 2020. It is administered by the Brown Institute for Basic Sciences at the California Institute of Technology. Ross M. Brown, a Caltech alumnus and founder/former CEO of Cryogenic Industries, established the Investigator Awards in support of the belief that “scientific discovery is a driving force in the improvement of the human condition.”

The first three years of the program has funded 13 investigators.

Nominees are evaluated by an independent scientific review board. A select number of research universities from across the country are invited to nominate faculty members, within 10 years of having received tenure, who are doing innovative fundamental research in the physical sciences.

Read the Caltech press release about the Brown Investigators.