To Infinity and Beyond

We are officially expats. The movers showed last Monday and packed what was left of our belongings into neat symmetrical boxes all cataloged and labeled. A snapshot of where our life stopped in Boston ready to be picked up 6 weeks later in Abu Dhabi. As the plane taxis down the runway and the wheels lift off the ground I am filled with excitement and fear.

expat_sm
Off to Abu Dhabi

This has been my home for the last 11 years. Boston has been the place where I laid down roots. I ‘grew up’ here as you might say. Some of my biggest challenges and greatest successes happened here. I came here to graduate school at MIT. In the Chemistry Department. I did not realize until after the fact how grueling that would be. But it was also immensely rewarding. MIT allowed me to hang out with some amazing people from around the world. I dissected life and science with exciting people driven to change the world one invention at a time, developed great mentors, and have made lifelong friends from all corners of the world.

I met Lily at MIT. She changed my life. For the better. Now we are both off to London. Together. Eight days to contemplate our new life and prepare for our next adventure. Abu Dhabi.

To infinity and beyond.

So long MIT

 

Mens et Manus
Mens et Manus

This week marks the end of my time at MIT. When I leave on Friday, I will have been here for 10 years, 11 months, and 16 days. 4002 days. It is had to imagine that I have been here for this long. I remember showing up to Tang Hall and getting my room. Up in the corner of the 24th floor. Now, I have a PhD – 8 years in the making, three years of Post Doctoral work, and I met one of the most amazing people in the world, who agreed last year to spend the rest of her life with me.

Along the way, I have met some incredible people. Jarrett, who officiated our wedding and has been there every step of the way since our beginning. Kerry, who came with Lily and has been an amazing friend. Eric and Zary, fellow MITers whom I kind of brought together (at least that is the story I am telling). Charles, for those out there and realistic conversations on the pursuit of science and scientific thought. Peter, who I can always count on to get things done. Will, who has been a true and loyal friend for some long years now. John Essigmann, who has been a terrific mentor and friend to me. Joost, who always plied me with libations and conversation. And many, many more. Too many over the years to recount here.

Lily and I are leaving soon, and arriving later this month, at Masdar Institute a brand new graduate research institute in Abu Dhabi. I will be a Professor in the Chemical Engineering Department.I am excited about the opportunities ahead of me, but also mindful of the responsibility that comes with this opportunity. It will not be easy, but it will be very rewarding.

It is not a good bye, but a so long to MIT and Boston. We will be back soon.

Standing on the shoulders of giants

I was reminded of this phrase while at dinner this week. I recently became a Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Visiting Scholar at MIT. As part of this honor, I was invited to attend the Faculty of Color monthly dinner. I must admit I became more nervous as the day of dinner approached. Most of these Professors I interacted with while a student representative on a Faculty Committee in my role as a graduate student representative. Some I had only read about while studying the history of the Minority Community at MIT. All of them are leaders in their respective fields of research and contributors to the advancement of Minorities in Academics.

As I sat there listening to their stories at dinner, I reflected on how much they each gave in their own way to open doors for my generation. Reading their history paled in comparison to hearing the narrative in person. It is hard to gauge the thought process from the written word. To glimpse into environment from which decisions were made. Whether thirty years out, it was all worth it. Being there at the dinner, listening to the changes in inflection, taking in the hand gestures, and observing the shifting body language lent a sense of reality and depth to the narration that is absent in the written word.

I cannot imagine the strength and resolve it took to put up with spitting, cigarettes butts, sleeping in isolated conditions, or being ostracized from the academic community because of what you were not. All I know is that I am thankful to them for the road they paved for me.

Later that evening, while on the Red Line going home, I realized that at one time, they were just like me. A potential to be used. The choice on how that potential was to be used was mine and only mine to make. Only time would tell, but if I choose to do what I believe and do not compromise, it will all work out. Just then a song came into my head; REM’s ‘King of Birds’ lyrics, standing on the shoulders of giants, it leaves me cold. As I hummed the tune, I smiled knowing that although it is going to be a hard endeavor, it will not be impossible. They made sure that I have more than a fighting chance.

Scientific Sleuthing

I’ve always had a soft spot for detective novels. I even fancy myself a detective. Not like the ones you read about in pulp fiction made famous by Daly, Hamlet, and Spillane (to name a few), but a sleuth no less. I have spent the last couple of weeks playing detective in lab, you see. I am out on a hunt for molecules produced by these microbes I am studying. This type of investigative work is what attracted me to chemistry and biochemistry. At hand I have a set of known microbial metabolic pathways, a pretty good idea of what some of the intermediate and products are, a lot of chemistry knowledge, and a whole slew of really cool high tech tools.

The method is pretty straightforward. I feed my favorite microbe a known carbon source; it helps if I can radio-label a carbon or another atom on the substrate. I wait for a defined period of time, collect the media, and start the analysis. Step one: spin down cells, take off the supernatant, extract with dichloromethane, …

Yes, it is quite tedious, but many steps later, I have a small sample with metabolites extracted from the experimental microbial growth sample. Now the fun begins. First, what technique do I start with? The simplest is ultraviolet/visible (UV/vis) light spectra. What does the absorption spectra of your samples look like? Can you see something that resembles a conjugated backbone? How about an aromatic ring? Hints of structure here and there.  But then you ask, does the sample contain one or many kinds of molecules? Can I somehow separate these molecules?

In this next step I might choose liquid chromatography (LC) or gas chromatography (GC). Which technique I use depends on certain properties of the molecules I am looking for, are they water-soluble? Are they volatile? For water-soluble molecules I select LC and for volatile molecules I select GC. Both of these separation techniques have a mass spectrometry instrument (MS) attached, allowing me to get a sense of the molecular mass of each separated compound. I inject and watch the molecules fly. Every peak I see reveals a wealth of information about the compounds ‘vitals’. What is the mass of the molecule? Does it fractionate into smaller defined compounds with a known mass? Do the fractionation patters I see match a compound previously characterized?

Next, I isolate and purify the compound using LC, collecting the fractions that have my compound of interest and use Nuclear Magnetic Resonance (NMR) spectroscopy to try to resolve ambiguities due to configuration around enantiomeric carbon atoms. I use proton NMR and carbon NMR and study the chemical shifts I see in my purified sample. From these set of data, I can deduce whether I have a ‘R’ or ‘S’ configuration around my enantiomeric carbon and a host of other structural relationships.

In the end, I have a larges set of ‘clues’ from which I will build a chemical structure of the compounds isolated from the microbial growth media. But that is not enough. In order to stake a claim to a new molecule and possibly a whole new molecular pathway, I have to present my findings to other chemists and microbiologists, convincing them that I have done my sleuthing well. It is very tedious work and most of the time you do not find a new molecule, but every once in a while, you isolate something, a molecule never seen before. The thrill of finding what has not been observed before, drives me to explore the secret metabolic pathways hidden in these microbial species.

Stay tuned to see how this tale turns out. HHH