Tell us a bit about yourself. What inspired you toward a career in nanoscience?
Since a kid, I have always been passionate about design and engineering. When my friends were drawing Batman cartoons, I was drawing modifications to the Batmobile. After graduate school in Chemical Biology studying pathways involved in cancer, I wanted to move into more engineering and design. I wanted to solve problems, not just ask questions. As I was trained in biochemistry and specifically DNA structure and function, nanotechnology was an obvious application of my expertise to an engineering problem.
This past semester, you did undergraduate research with your organic chemistry lab students. Why is undergraduate research important? What challenges arise when conducting research with students?
Undergraduate research is about gaining appreciation for the material you are learning. Simply, putting it use. The most difficult part of undergraduate research is gaining independence. Independence takes time to develop and is a difficult journey of learning how to ask the right questions and plan ahead. When working with students, I am constantly trying to find a balance between guidance and independence. Especially early in their journey to independence, students need close guidance. The difficult part is finding the right time to step back and let them start to work independently. Again, this is a long process and the earlier students can start on the path toward independent scientist, the more they can accomplish.
What questions were you hoping to answer this semester?
My goal with research in the undergraduate classes is to provide appreciation for the science the students are learning. The current students have been embroiled in several years of the COVID pandemic disrupting their life, and I wanted to ensure that the students are connecting the science they are learning to their daily lives. In the lab section of the class, we worked on a genetic test for HIV mutations. Similarly to the coronavirus, HIV can mutate. A predominant mutation, G48V allows HIV to function in the presence of commonly used protease inhibitors therapies. In the lab section of the class, I showed the students how to coat DNA onto surfaces like glass to make a common bioassay for identifying G48V mutant HIV.
You yourself were once an undergraduate research student at Simpson. If you had to go back in time, what career advice would you give 18-year-old Derek?
Network more. Solving real problems requires a wide range of skill sets and viewpoints. I have found the most success in my career collaborating.
Is there any additional advice you'd give students looking to do research today?
Get involved in research as early as possible. Research provides an application to what you are learning and will certainly guide you to finding a true passion, a place to focus your attention in the vast world of science. Discovering your passion project requires many misadventures along the way to find the magical combination of a problem that you care about that matches your skill set, interests, and available resources.
Last Question: If you had to hire a nanobot to do a job for you, what job would you hire it to do?
I live in suburbia, which roughly translates into the "land of beautiful landscaping". The harder I work on my making my yard look good, the worse it gets. I need some nanobots to help - maximize soil nutrients, minimize invasive weed species.
Derek, thank you so much for taking time to catch us up on your work!
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