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 collaboratedhe built and I detonated," Lynn says. "He is now a contractor building houses. It is good the collaboration has not persisted."
Some of his other early experiences didn't hurt eitherand 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 reactivityI 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 door."
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 timea most important lesson about life."