University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
The Molecular Sciences Made Personal
Chemist Jeffrey Moore has always sought ways to make his work meaningful. His research at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign crosses disciplinary borders, incorporating the tools of engineering and materials science to design materials that can detect and repair their own damage. But Moore expects his greatest impact will come not from these successes, but from the time he devotes to helping students become effective problem-solvers.
Moore earned a bachelor's degree in chemistry at the University of Illinois and, because he wanted to direct his energy toward something tangible, a PhD in materials science and engineering. Since establishing his own lab – first at the University of Michigan and, in 1993, at the University of Illinois – he has worked at the interface of the two fields, manipulating atoms, bonds, and chemical reactions to generate end products with useful properties.
One of his early successes was the creation of self-healing polymer composites. The materials his team developed contain a microencapsulated healing agent that polymerizes and seals cracks as they grow. The technique repairs cracks that are about a micron in size – about one-eighth of the width of a human hair.
A next step, Moore says, was to try to detect subtler damage, before a crack develops. His team's solution is a sensor that detects mechanical force. In 2007, he and his colleagues demonstrated that they could use mechanical forces to bias reaction pathways, promoting certain chemical transformations over others. They later invented a molecular probe that undergoes a color change due to a force-induced molecular rearrangement, enabling mechanically sensitive molecular probes for damage detection.
In 2014, Moore's team engineered a material that could cope with damage of a different scale: loss of a massive amount of material, such as blast damage or a bullet hole. Figuring out how to get material to regrow a large volume was a completely different problem, he says. Their solution was to create a material that would respond to damage first by forming a scaffold. “You can think of it as a scab – a temporary fix,” Moore explains. Once the scaffold is erected, a second set of chemical reactions provides a more permanent repair.
When Moore first became a professor, he viewed teaching undergraduate students as an obligation. For years, he presented lectures and gave exams in a large auditorium to students who mostly seemed uninterested. His attitude and approach have evolved. “I've gone from having almost no interest in teaching to an incredible passion. What I do when I'm standing in front of 300 impressionable students in the classroom is probably the biggest impact I'm having in my career,” he says.
Many of the students in Moore's two-semester introductory organic chemistry class, which he has taught for 14 years, are preparing for careers in medicine. They are not chemistry majors. Moore has realized the most important thing he has to teach them is not the details of organic chemistry, but how to solve problems. In 2005, he restructured his course so that he could incorporate challenging, open-ended problems that students work through together, with coaching from Moore and other mentors. Short lectures explaining core chemistry concepts are available as videos that students watch outside of class time.
As they attack complex, real-world problems, students learn to take calculated risks, work through uncertainty, and persevere despite setbacks. “I want to promote curiosity-driven learning,” Moore says. It's working. Students report that the skills they learn serve them in other classes and careers well beyond graduation. Moore has been honored at the University of Illinois as “Faculty Ranked Excellent by Their Students” and with its Campus Award for Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching.
In 2012, Moore took another step to capture his students' interest by incorporating medical examples of organic chemistry concepts into his teaching. Problems aimed at solving the molecular mechanisms of drugs and diseases helped students recognize the relevance of the material.
Now, Moore plans to revamp the second semester of the course to further increase its relevancy to students. Most students enrolled in the chemistry course also take a molecular genetics course during their first semester. Moore plans to build on that knowledge base by having students explore the chemical foundations of genetic processes. Students will have the opportunity to obtain their personal genetic data, then explore through chemistry-based interpretations how their genes relate to their personal traits.
Since Moore's expertise is not in genetics, he says he has been doing a lot of learning himself. That, in turn, has helped nudge his research in a new direction. Taking a cue from the chemical signals that shape an organism's body as it develops, he is now thinking about ways to control the chemical signals that drive a material's growth, so that it can be directed to develop into a particular size and shape.