Jeffrey Martell: “We need to think expansively to identify research goals that others haven't thought of.”
An interview with Jeffrey D. Martell (University of Wisconsin-Madison, USA), the TOP 5 finalist of the Dream Chemistry Award 2019 with the project “DNA Nano-Scaffolds for Rapid Discovery of Enzyme-Mimicking Catalysts”.
Why did you decide to do research in multipath chemistry?
I have always been interested in many different disciplines. In research, we need to pick one discipline and dig deeply into a specific problem, but at each stage of my career, I have tried to move into new areas. This challenges me to learn more and gain new abilities, and I think in the long-run, this can enhance the potential for making creative contributions. When you move into a new area, you see things from a different perspective from others working in that field.
How was preparing your Dream Chemistry Award project different from your day-to-day research work? Did you find it a beneficial exercise?
The Dream Chemistry Award was a wonderful experience! It was an extremely valuable experience to present my big ideas and get critical questions and feedback from scientists with diverse scientific expertise. It was also wonderful to meet the other finalists, who had inspiring ideas. Preparing for the presentation was a valuable experience because the emphasis is on risk-taking and multi-decade plans. Nearly all other competitions are focused on short-term feasibility.
Your project focused on DNA-based enzyme-mimicking catalysts. How did you come up with it?
I was very interested in a long-standing problem: how do we create molecules that mimic the catalysis of enzymes? This has been a difficult challenge for decades. I felt a key lesson from nature is that we cannot just test one active site candidate at a time. We need to synthesize and test thousands to millions of candidate catalysts. I became inspired by recent advances in DNA nanotechnology, DNA barcoding, and next-generation DNA sequencing. I think we can combine these powerful tools to make substantial progress on this long-standing problem.
How important do you think is imagination and the ability to dream for a scientist?
I think imagination is extremely important for scientists. In order to push the boundaries of scientific knowledge, we cannot simply focus on what everyone else is doing and has done in the past. We need to think expansively to identify research goals that others haven't thought of.
You just started as a course instructor of Physical Organic Chemistry. How do you feel about teaching? And how different this part of academic work is from pursuing research?
It has been a privilege for me to teach our outstanding graduate students at UW-Madison in physical organic chemistry, an extremely important subject. I have learned a lot through the process, and much of it comes from the students asking me excellent questions that challenge me to look into the literature and think more deeply about the topics. This teaching experience will definitely help me to do better research moving forward, since it has enhanced my understanding and thought process on fundamentally important concepts in chemistry.
How did you enjoy your stay at IOCB Prague?
It was wonderful! I greatly enjoyed meeting the IOCB scientists and my fellow DCA finalists. Prague is a beautiful city that I had never visited before. I'm happy I had the chance to see it.