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Stanford chemist explains excitement of chemistry to students, the public

Chemistry Professor Carolyn Bertozzi thinks of her work as domesticating molecules and hopes her research will be clinically relevant for people.

L.A. Cicero
Jun 5 2015

Carolyn Bertozzi sees chemicals as having personalities and those personalities determine how they behave. She's bringing this vision to her teaching, hoping to help chemistry and biology students as well as the general public understand what's exciting in chemistry.


To Carolyn Bertozzi, newly arrived professor of chemistry, molecules are no more mysterious than people. They have personalities.

"I find it entertaining to think about domesticating molecules," she said.

During her career, if she has not outright domesticated molecules she has at least gotten some of them to do her bidding. Bertozzi, who is the Anne T. and Robert M. Bass Professorship in the School of Humanities and Sciences, is credited as founding a field called bioorthogonal chemistry, which allows researchers to chemically modify molecules within living cells. Through collaborations at Stanford, Bertozzi is hoping to bring this work closer to being clinically relevant for people.

In 1999 Bertozzi was selected as a MacArthur Fellow for her work, and since then she has been elected to the National Academy of Sciences, the Institute of Medicine and American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

Bertozzi recently came to Stanford to join Stanford ChEM-H (Chemistry, Engineering & Medicine for Human Health), the new interdisciplinary institute that brings together chemists, engineers, biologists and clinicians to understand life at a chemical level and apply that knowledge to improving human health. In addition to her research, she will also help bolster chemistry education at both the undergraduate and graduate levels.

She spoke with the Stanford News Service about the personality of molecules and her approach to teaching, as well as what attracted her to ChEM-H.

You've won several awards for your teaching. What do you think resonates with students?

I thought I was going to be biology major, but when I took my first chemistry class I thought the molecules were like people. They were funny. There are molecules that are benign in the presence of some molecules and reactive in the presence of others. Others might be high energy but stable because it's hard for them to get out of that energy state, or if high-energy molecules have low barriers to get out of that energy state they'll be really reactive. We all know people like that. They can be very unstable.

The way I think about chemistry is to ask the question, what are these molecules going to do when they come into proximity? It's what you do in the world all the time with people and objects – you try to anticipate. That's what inspired me to change my major, and I try to convey that same human element of chemistry to students.

For example, [she draws two molecules on a whiteboard] this is triethylamine. It's not very reactive because it's bulky. This is quinuclidine [pointing to a larger molecule]. It's very reactive, and when I tell students this they're amazed because it doesn't look like that should be right because it's bigger, bulkier and, people think, less nimble. But the difference is that quinuclidine has all of its bulk held back in this bond – its hair is tied back in a ponytail, basically, and therefore it can react. Triethylamine has hair in its face. It can't react with hair in its face.

In a way the deck is stacked in my favor in terms of teaching because, for not very good reasons, students come into the class with low expectations. Based on urban legends or inaccurate impressions from pop culture, they are thinking, "I'm going to hate chemistry," and I'm talking about tying hair back to keep it out of the molecule's eyes. I think the students are pleasantly surprised and relieved.

Will the intersection of chemistry and biology embodied by ChEM-H filter down to the undergraduate level?

ChEM-H is going to fill a building with interdisciplinary scientists in whose labs undergraduate students will do research. I think undergraduate educational experiences that integrate biology and chemistry will prepare them better to work in this new space, and that is another goal of ChEM-H. They are the future. We want them to push biomedical science in new directions in the future and are asking ourselves how we can best situate them to do that.

The answer is to offer them an innovative undergraduate training experience that integrates biology and chemistry. We've been talking about chemical biology for years – that is not a new idea in research circles, but somehow it has not manifested itself in the undergrad curricula at most universities. The chemistry and biology faculty at Stanford have already started making some really interesting curriculum adjustments and I look forward to working with them to give students a great start in chemistry as it relates to human biology.

What about graduate students?

We already launched a new interdisciplinary graduate education program within ChEM-H that will include graduate students from six departments: Chemistry and Biology [from the School of Humanities and Sciences], Chemical Engineering [from the School of Engineering], Bioengineering [jointly in the School of Engineering and the School of Medicine] and Biochemistry and Chemical and Structural Biology [from the School of Medicine]. We've just accepted our first class of students and will be expanding the program next year.

It's basically benevolent social engineering. We're going to take people from different backgrounds and get them intermingled. We'll have journal clubs and a retreat and a core graduate course that all participants will take. We'd also like to give them an exposure to a therapeutic area so they can learn something about the front lines of medicine in an area of interest. Another thing we'd like them to have is experience with science outreach and communication because it is so vital to the health of our nation's scientific enterprise.

Why do you think students need exposure to communication?

These students are our future leaders in interdisciplinary biomedical science and we want them to be able to explain it to their supporters and stakeholder, which of course is the public at large. I'd like to organize our students in the program to create a product that the world can see. Videos? Web materials? My Stanford colleagues have many creative ideas and we are culling our list at the moment.

I attended a conference last year that brought together scientists and Hollywood screenwriters – and I mean the A-list – writers of the Mission Impossible series, the Dark Knight and Man of Steel series, Guardians of the Galaxy and Thor, a who's who of Hollywood action and sci-fi. The idea is that if you want to increase the appreciation of science in the eyes of young people you can have a broader impact by writing Natalie Portman into a movie as an astrophysicist than by having me go to a hundred kindergarten classrooms, which is also important but limited in reach. Also, when screenwriters do write science fiction movies, they like to get the science as accurate as possible.

If you look at Hollywood's recent products, they do a great job with outer space, they are great with bioterrorism, neuroscience and brain manipulation. They love that. But there's not a lot of chemistry unless it is bad chemistry, bombs and drugs, in part because they don't know about all of the exciting frontiers. I think it would be fun if we could have some way for our students to learn the art of storytelling and show what's exciting in chemistry.

Why Stanford?

I came here for chemistry and ChEM-H. Chemistry has an illustrious history at Stanford, the medical school is right across the street, and engineering is a superpower. Chaitan [Khosla, director of Stanford ChEM-H and professor of chemistry and of chemical engineering] is also an inspirational person and leader. When he called me and said he was building this new institute and hiring people to do a completely new brand of science, I was intrigued. Stanford is the perfect environment to do that.

Stanford to me is a place where you can innovate faster and harder than any other institution. That's how I have always thought of Stanford. At Stanford people have big ideas and they can move fast, generally with the support of the administration. I really like that.

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