Sloan Fellowships go to two Carolina chemists

Abigail Knight and Sidney Wilkerson-Hill are the latest of 48 Tar Heels to receive this top award.

Abigail Knight and Sidney Wilkerson-Hill pose in front of brick building.
Abigail Knight and Sidney Wilkerson-Hill in chemistry are the recipients of 2024 Sloan Fellowships. (photo by Donn Young)

Chemists Abigail Knight and Sidney Wilkerson-Hill of Carolina have been awarded 2024 Sloan Research Fellowships, among the most prestigious awards given to early-career scientists. They are both assistant professors in the College of Arts and Sciences’ chemistry department.

The Alfred P. Sloan Foundation announced the awards Feb. 20. A total of 126 early-career researchers received fellowships, given to extraordinary U.S. and Canadian scientists whose creativity, innovation and research accomplishments make them stand out as the next generation of leaders. The new fellows, who were nominated by their peers, are drawn from a diverse range of 53 institutions across seven academic fields.

Knight’s research is at the intersection of bioinspired materials, chemical biology and polymer chemistry. Her lab focuses on designing novel macromolecular materials with functions inspired by biological systems. She shared in her Sloan research statement: “Since the advent of synthetic polymer chemistry, scientists have been striving to understand, exploit and improve upon the remarkable complex functions of natural biomolecules.” The Knight lab is taking inspiration from proteins to design new materials to tackle contemporary challenges in sustainability and human health.

Knight is the previous recipient of an NSF CAREER Award and a W.M. Keck Foundation Award. She received an undergraduate degree from UNC-Chapel Hill in 2010 and a doctorate from the University of California, Berkeley in 2015.

Wilkerson-Hill is an organic chemist whose lab focuses on developing pyrethroids, small molecule pesticides used to combat mosquitoes and other insects. These synthetic materials function by mimicking naturally occurring compounds found in plants and can be used in vector control programs to combat malaria.

“Given the steady increase in global temperatures, researchers have predicted that insect vectors for malaria will continually become more challenging to combat,” he shared in his Sloan research statement. “Additionally, mosquitoes are quickly developing resistance to pyrethroid molecules because of their sustained use, which has been highlighted as a major threat to human health.”

New pyrethroids with enhanced performance properties (and identifying new modes of action) are desperately needed, Wilkerson-Hill added.

Wilkerson-Hill is the recipient of the 2024 FMC New Investigator Award, which also recognizes the contributions of outstanding early-career scientists, and the previous recipient of an NSF CAREER Award. He received an undergraduate degree from NC State University in 2010 and a doctorate from the University of California, Berkeley in 2015.

“Sid and Abby started their independent careers in the department of chemistry in 2018 and excel in every aspect,” said chemistry chair Wei You. “They truly deserve this significant recognition. Over the years, Carolina researchers have received this prestigious recognition 48 times, and 23 of those winners were Tar Heel chemists.

“If there were any secret in sustaining the excellence of Carolina chemistry, I would point to just one thing — recruiting the very best junior faculty and embracing them with collegiality and a nurturing environment to maximize their own potential. Then, the sky is the limit.”

Awarded annually since 1955, a Sloan Fellowship is among the most coveted awards given to young researchers in part because many past fellows have gone on to great achievements in science. Fifty-seven fellows have received a Nobel Prize in their respective fields. Potential fellows are nominated by their peers and then selected by an independent panel of senior scholars.

“Sloan Research Fellowships are extraordinarily competitive awards involving the nominations of the most inventive and impactful early-career scientists across the U.S. and Canada,” said Adam F. Falk, president of the Sloan Foundation.

Learn about the 2024 Sloan Fellows.