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Matt Hartings

Protein Wonk


Cred PhD Chemistry, Northwestern University; NIH-funded postdoctoral fellow, California Institute of Technology

Livelihood Assistant Professor of Chemistry

Interests I study the way proteins use metals for all sorts of amazing things—photosynthesis, respiration, digestion, and therapy. This area of study is broadly termed bioinorganic chemistry. Bio for, well, biology and inorganic for metals.

Focus I try to play chemical tricks on proteins to make them do new things. In my lab, these specifically include treating cancer and converting sunlight into energy.

Recent Articles “Communicating Chemistry for Public Engagement,” Nature Chemistry, 2011; “Electron tunneling through sensitizer wires bound to proteins,” Coordination Chemistry Reviews, 2010.

Hobbies I love to cook. And, because I’m such a nerd, geek, wonk, what-have-you, I also love learning about the science of cooking. I teach a class called “The Chemistry of Cooking,” and I often write about kitchen chemistry on my blog. I’m also a college basketball junkie. My main hobby, though, is playing with my three little kids. Other hobbies get put on the backburner while I get to be a daddy.

Recent Awards I won a $25K award from NASA to develop a cutting-edge science program for our junior and senior chemistry and biochemistry majors.

Last Book You Read “The Art of Fielding” by Chad Harbach. This book brought back terrible memories from when I had the “yips” as a freshman during baseball season.

Intellectual hero My PhD advisor Mark Ratner has an uncanny ability to make everyone feel much smarter and more capable than they actually are. I constantly turn to Harold McGee and his book “On Food and Cooking.” And there are countless scientist-communicators whom I try to emulate: Carl Sagan, Neil deGrasse Tyson, and Roald Hoffmann to name a few.

What keeps you up at night? Aside from my daughters’ bladders, usually anxiety about finding time to do all of the experiments that I WANT to do.

If we can KNOW anything with certainty, what is it? Entropy (disorder) wins. Which means that cleaning up messes is a futile effort. Noble. But futile nonetheless.

Favorite quote “It's tough to make predictions, especially about the future.” Yogi Berra

Most exciting area of bioinorganic research today Understanding and trying to mimic how proteins do chemistry that we are still only dreaming about doing in lab: i.e. turning sunlight into sugars and oxygen with photosynthesis. I think that our future in alternative energy is going to entirely hinge on using renewables (solar, wind, etc) to store energy in chemical batteries.

If you had the resources and team to develop any invention, what would it be and why? I think that we could all use a teleportation device if for nothing else than to cut down on our daily commute times.

How did you develop your expertise? Who knows? I think all scientists make this stuff up as they go along. We find something that we’re interested in and then sponge up information from as many places as we can. For me, it helped that I worked for a scientist (Harry Gray) who basically invented the specific field that I work in.

What’s your advice for aspiring chemists? I have three pieces of advice, two of which seem to be at complete odds with each other. 1) Make time to get lost in your work. 2) Practice sharing your science and your enthusiasm. 3) Be uncompromisingly proud of the work that you do.

Are You a Wonk? You betcha

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