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A support structure for integrated science

John D. Simon, executive vice president and provost at the University of Virginia (UVA), will become Lehigh’s 14th president on July 1. An internationally renowned chemist, Simon’s research interests span the structure and function of melanin, ultrafast chemistry, atmospheric chemistry and the interactions between proteins and functionalized nanospheres. At UVA, Simon helped launch the Data Science Institute and Advanced Research Institute while establishing a Center for Global Inquiry and Innovation, a major in global studies and a physical presence in Asia. Previously, he served as vice provost for academic affairs and department chair of chemistry at Duke University and as professor of chemistry at the University of California at San Diego. He holds a Ph.D. from Harvard University and a B.A. from Williams College.

Q: How did you come to be interested in the structure and function of melanin?

A: When I was at Duke, I had a postdoctoral fellow, Susan Forest, who was interested in Seasonal Affective Disorder and wondered if it was tied to photoreceptors in the skin. The dominant photoreceptor in the skin is melanin. We started reading as much as we could about melanin. There were hundreds of relevant papers at the time, but we quickly realized that no one knew much about melanin’s chemical structure. So we decided to see what we could learn about the molecular structure and relationships between structure and function. We ended up studying intact organelles from squid, and human brains and eyes.

Along the way, we learned that tremendous amount of calcium is bound by melanins, and there were conjectures that melanin might play a role in calcium regulation. We determined the first association constants between intact pigment granules and calcium. We did spend a lot of time trying to elucidate the molecular structure of melanin, but never figured it out. You can put that particular project in my failure column. My standard line now is that the structure of melanin will be figured out when the right chemist tackles the problem.

Q: What did you learn from this project?

A: We learned that projects like this require interdisciplinary teams to tackle and make advances. In one area of our research—the changes in retinal melanosomes that occur with aging—we worked with researchers around the world, each of whom brought a different expertise to the problem. Together we were able to provide new and important insights into changes in the melanosome that account for functional changes of the pigment. There’s certainly a role for chemists to play, but we learned that to have an impact, this is not a problem that can be addressed solely by chemistry.

I believe that the best science I’ve ever been involved in is our work on melanin—but I never would have gotten tenure in a traditional chemistry department for doing it. My colleagues would not know how to judge the work. And yet I think this work exemplifies where scientific research is going: In more and more complex problems, people will work in teams, each person contributing a piece to the puzzle that results in a larger impact. This is the nature of interdisciplinary work.

Q: Your study of a squid ink sac preserved from the Jurassic Period was published in the Journal of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. How did this project begin?

A: This project has been a blast. One of my collaborators on the project, Philip Wilby, a geologist with the British Geological Survey, was reading the records of the construction of a railway from London to Wales. The record described a squid kill the crew had stumbled on while digging the railway. With an estimated location for the site, an excavation was done and Wilby found an intact squid ink sac from the Jurassic Period—the only fully intact one ever recorded.

Wondering whether the pigment in the ink sac differed from the pigment in modern squid ink sacs, Wilby approached Shosuke Ito, a Japanese chemist who is a guru in melanin chemistry and one of my closest collaborators. In the end, researchers from Japan, the U.S., India, England and Poland looked at this from a variety of angles. We couldn’t detect any differences between the Jurassic sample and modern-day melanin, indicating there’s been essentially no evolution in the structure of the pigment or the morphology of the granules, etc., in squid for over 200 million years.

Q: You have explored a wide range of research interests.

A: I think the days are over when a researcher starts in a particular field of study and stays there for an entire career. You have to reinvent yourself periodically because the problems of interest in the scientific community change. You have to have a more open view about what you can get passionate about, what you can do yourself, what you can do in teams. I think a research university today has to structure itself to support this.

Q: As president, do you hope to build on Lehigh’s strengths in interdisciplinary programs?

A: Yes. I’m hoping faculty and employers will provide guidance. If we educate students in interdisciplinary spaces, we need to make sure there are career opportunities after graduation. A lot of institutions struggle with balance—giving students breadth in coursework as well as the skills they need for today’s workforce. I think Lehigh’s interdisciplinary programs do both.

Q: How does this need for balance pertain to modern engineering education?

A: Engineers today need skills that go beyond mastering their field of engineering. They need to understand the world they aspire to impact with their inventions. You can design a product for delivering clean water in sub-Saharan Africa, but if it is culturally something that the population won’t use, you’re not going to have any impact. So I think engineers need to understand culture, politics and history, finance and entrepreneurship, to place their solutions—based on science and technology—in the context of the populations that are to use them. All this also requires good communication skills.

Q: How well are we preparing K-12 students to pursue STEM careers?

A: I have a high school senior and a high school junior. One is interested in engineering, one in biology. I don’t think their high school experience has truly exposed them to the excitement of science. They have a lot of homework problems to solve, but they don’t know what problems scientists are tackling today. Exposing students to what’s happening in the world of scientific research today could create the passion to become a scientist and contribute to advancing our quality of life.

We aren’t educating our teachers to teach that way. The STEM dropout rate is a serious national issue. And I always get pushback when I raise the issue of whether we should be teaching integrated science or individual disciplines in high school. If you ask average high school graduates whether photosynthesis is a problem in biology, chemistry or physics, I think very few would say all three.

I had a colleague at Duke, David Needham, an engineering professor, who framed a course around the question of “How did Nature solve the x problem?” You ask why something works—how proteins replicate DNA, for example—and you find out this is a very interdisciplinary question with biological, chemical, mathematical and physical components and that proteins are one of the beauties of true engineering. Students are much more motivated when they’re trying to understand why something works than when they’re memorizing a set of rules.

Q: How soon should undergraduates start doing research?

A: Immediately. I used to take freshmen from our introductory courses at UCSD and Duke, put them in the lab and cross my fingers. If they stayed interested, by their senior year they were as motivated as any graduate student. Undergraduates are so hungry for the opportunity to be part of the discovery process that you never know what idea they might come up. They’re unencumbered by everything you think you know. I’ve written a lot of papers with undergraduates, many on topics that were unplanned.

Q: How can universities increase the participation of women and underrepresented groups in engineering?

A: In regard to underrepresented groups, I think students enroll with the same level of intelligence and motivation but with different backgrounds and different levels of access to college preparation. The question then is, “What are we doing institutionally to support these students and ensure that they have the right tools to succeed?” They may doubt whether this is the profession for them, because they see few people with like backgrounds.

In regard to attracting and retaining more women faculty, at Virginia, we’ve looked at a lot of things—how offices and lab space are assigned, committee loads, whether or not we have any unintended bias. As provost, I’ve felt that you must be vigilant about developing diverse candidate pools and making an effort to reach out to candidates.

Q: What is your most memorable accomplishment?

A: In my junior year of college, I obtained my first piece of research data; I was using spectroscopy to probe the complex formed between trivalent europium ions and crown ethers. It was the first time I knew something that no one else in the world knew. I remember this moment because I was really excited, and I wanted to share it with friends who frankly couldn’t care less. The sense of discovery was motivating to me. I knew at that moment, that if I could make it, I was going to be a scientist. I remember that day as if it was yesterday. It changed my life.

Interview by Kurt Pfitzer and Chris Larkin