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Interview: Chemistry kibbutz
01 November 2010
|George Whitesides is professor of chemistry at Harvard University in Cambridge, US. He is particularly noted for his work on self-assembly of molecules at surfaces which laid the groundwork for advances in nanotechnology. He has also contributed to such diverse fields as nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) spectroscopy, materials science and microfluidics. He is chair of the editorial board for Lab on a Chip.|
How did you get into chemistry?
My father was a chemical engineer. When I was a teenager, I worked in the lab and enjoyed it. I wanted to be a mathematician first but did not think I had the talent. I also like English but didn't think I could earn a living out of teaching English. Overall doing lab work came easy to me so I ended up doing that.
What are you currently working on?
We are currently working on between 50 or 60 projects that cover things ranging from very directed projects - such as technology for the developing world or tools for biology - to things that are very curiosity driven. For example, we have a programme on flames and another on the origins of life so we cover the spectrum. Generally, I'd say we are tool makers. We make tools for studying worms, for looking at cells, for investigating flames, and so on.
You have a huge team working for you. How do you manage them all?
I don't manage it in the conventional sense of the word. We use a different model to that often used in academia where students act as apprentices to their supervisor. This idea seems wrong to me as they know things that I don't know and they have time to dedicate to the project. On the other hand, I have more perspective than they do. But when they come in I tell them that we all work for the group. I'm not the manager of the group. My job is to provide them with the richest environment that I can. People that come to the group are very successful at running enterprises and part of what we do is research but part of what we do is let people learn to do research and how to manage researchers.
You have an incredible number of patents to your name. Did you aim for this in your research?
We are interested in everything from curiosity to making things work. An ideal project is one that starts with curiosity. We then refine the parts that work and do prototypes. If they work well we try to take them into the real world. It is a cycle that takes about 10 years and many projects fail along the way. It is also good to remember that our salaries are paid by tax payers and so there is a good reason for wanting to do something for public benefit, not just for the papers.
Your research is a wonderful combination of what I would call 'quirky' and fundamental chemistry. Is it difficult to identify those research areas?
Well, you never know what is going to turn out to be useful. Sometimes it is something that you set out to solve, and sometimes is something that is quite far from where you started. The sequence of events that leads from discovery to utility is not that predictable.
There is no shortage of really interesting projects. There is a model where the idea is you go to the lab, read a paper, do the work, publish a paper. I have no objection to that but basically I don't want to do it. It is better to find out that there is no literature - then you have a completely open field to play with.
Is it more creative?
No. You can have creative engineering and creative discovery but what is different is that good engineers need to make things work and that is hard to do. Good discovery is hard to do too. But what works a little less well is people who are doing development work but not against the restrictions of having to make it work at the end. If you are an engineer you want to work on a real problem that is going to go into a process, and so on. And your focus is not on just producing a paper.
What is the most satisfying part of your job?
I love working with people, I love to see them learning how to do stuff. Our research group is not a machine producing research, but an enterprise that teaches people how to be researchers and helps them learn how to do things in a different way. It's about opening people's eyes to problems where other people haven't had their eyes opened.
And the most frustrating part?
A frustration for me is that good students go through the process, do good research and they still have a hard time getting a job. And it has nothing to do with the long term needs of the country but with the current financial situation - people aren't hiring. Anything that discourages young people is a bad idea.
How difficult is to secure funding in the US?
The US is probably spending billions of dollars per year in biomedical research alone so there is money around. Also this administration is very sympathetic to the idea that universities will help with the solution to a problem. But we spend an awful lot of time going through the process of getting money. Parts of it are very worthwhile for the research because trying to decide what fits within the needs of another organisation or agency and phrasing it so that people can understand is beneficial. But the reviews are very time consuming and then you may not get the money, so it feels like a fair amount of time is wasted doing this.
What do you feel have been the key achievements in your career to date?
The most important one is the realisation of how important people are in the research enterprise. If you engage people in the right way, give them credit for what they do, and good problems to work on that they are interested in then you can't fail. They'll do good stuff!
Where would you like to be in 10 years' time?
When you get to a certain point in life the answer to that question is alive! But if I had to choose a direction it would be some combination of discovery and simplicity. Techniques such as paper diagnostics are focused on the developing world, but there is a deeper issue there, which is how to develop technology that has an impact? Impact comes from making things functional, cheap and simple - something that is so transparent that everybody can use. It sounds trivial but it's not. It requires more skill than one would think.
Admirers have described you as a 'god of chemistry' or 'the greatest living chemist'. How do you feel about being so highly regarded and praised?
It is the research group that produces the work and it is a good functioning group because there are all these fantastic young people who go out and do things. Now, I do serve a function, I am very important in quality control and in setting problem areas. Of course, I don't know all the answers but my instinct tells me that there are lots of interesting things to discover. This is not an insignificant role that sometimes older people can do better as we have, if nothing else, years of seeing all kinds of stuff go through the door. But really the group is a collective, like the kibbutz of chemistry.
You are also very involved with teaching and outreach.
In the first part of the 20th century, quantum mechanics and physics were remaking the world. In the second part of the century, it was a combination of genomics and the idea that you can read DNA and you'd understand life and then the engineering consequences of the electronics world (internet, mobile phones, and so on). And now it is chemistry. The big questions to me now are all chemistry. Chemists and society don't quite understand that there has been a shift in what's needed and how people need to think about things. So showing people how interesting science is and how it influences their lives is essential and thus I'm interested in how chemistry is taught to the public. Unfortunately, the tendency in the science community is to write papers and books but we must understand there are new tools such as blogs, podcasts and videos that can help us send this message. I don't know what the future of communications is but as a community we need to learn how to tell good stories - it is a special skill - and then have enough people telling good stories.
Link to journal article
Integration of paper-based microfluidic devices with commercial electrochemical readers
Zhihong Nie, Frédérique Deiss, Xinyu Liu, Ozge Akbulut and George M. Whitesides, Lab Chip, 2010, 10, 3163
Patterned paper as a template for the delivery of reactants in the fabrication of planar materials
Paul J. Bracher, Malancha Gupta and George M. Whitesides, Soft Matter, 2010, 6, 4303
Millimeter-scale contact printing of aqueous solutions using a stamp made out of paper and tape
Chao-Min Cheng, Aaron D. Mazzeo, Jinlong Gong, Andres W. Martinez, Scott T. Phillips, Nina Jain and George M. Whitesides, Lab Chip, 2010, 10, 3201
George Whitesides' homepage
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Also of interest
George Whitesides wins Dreyfus Prize and Benjamin Franklin medal