The Explosive Excitement of Science
David Lynn says his earliest introduction to chemistry came as a
child, when a Gilbert chemistry set enabled him to blow up his
brother's models. It's his tongue-in-cheek way of making the point that
early exposure to science motivates future scientists.
"We collaborated—he built and I detonated," Lynn says. "He is
now a contractor building houses. It is good the collaboration has not
Some of his other early experiences didn't hurt either—and were
probably a lot safer: For example, his first college organic chemistry
course "where I first saw molecules," and his teacher "who got me
really excited about chemical reactivity—I clearly remember
leaving class one day, and trying to imagine all the thousands of
reactions occurring at the same time in a simple leaf just outside the
Or, at age 19, the National Science Foundation fellowship in marine
biology that enabled him to "paddle around in boats and collect algae
along the outer banks of North Carolina to evaluate ion currents back
in the lab."
These kinds of opportunities at an early age inspire young people to
get excited about science, Lynn says. That's one of the reasons he
wants to get undergraduates involved before they graduate. And Emory
University, where he is Asa Griggs Candler Professor of Chemistry and
Biology, is the ideal environment.
"Emory University is a great place to do science," he says.
"Research and teaching are seamlessly unified, [and] it is possible to
freely experiment, adjust and evolve new learning strategies."
As physical and materials technology converge with the world of
biology, and as genomic sequencing provides more information,
scientists are starting to learn "the most fundamental structural and
functional secrets of living organisms," Lynn says, describing his own
research. "Dominant among them is the realization that the complex
structures of biology seem remarkably, almost magically, to
self-assemble. We hope to understand the structures and forces that
enable supramolecular self-assembly," that is, how chemical information
can be stored and translated into new molecular entities. This can play
a role in new drug design and genetic engineering, and can provide a
better understanding of the origins of living systems, he says.
As an HHMI Professor, Lynn plans to establish a new training program
for undergraduate science students based on recent discoveries by Emory
researchers, using graduate students as peer models for undergraduates.
"Mentoring independent undergraduate research has proven to be the
single most important and influential educational experience for
selecting a career in science," he says.
While at Columbia University on an NIH postdoctoral fellowship, Lynn
came under the spell of chemistry professor Koji Nakanishi. "Koji loved
science and his work," Lynn says. "Mostly, he always seemed to have a
good time—a most important lesson about life."