Jonathan Kuo, assistant professor of chemistry, discusses his first year in the department.
Kathryn: Can you give some background to the research you were doing as a postdoc and how that became the seed for the research you wanted to do in your own lab?
Jonathan: As a postdoc, I studied the interactions between transition metals and their supporting ligands. We found that acidic functional groups could interact with the so-called “primary coordination sphere” (things directly bound to the transition metal ion), and that these interactions dramatically alter the reactivity of those fragments. In one case, the key interaction was the seemingly simple transfer of a metal-based proton to the supporting ligand. But that single event triggered a complex cascade of events, ultimately resulting in unusual reactivity.
Really that work taught me to think hard about the dynamics of organic and inorganic molecules. Sure, every molecule has a lowest energy configuration, where all the constituent atoms are in a specific location. But molecules are constantly dancing – bending, rotating, and distorting. Sometimes bonds are broken and remade. Ultimately, these dynamics are important for understanding chemical reactivity. My group tries to think about how those dynamics can be used to promote or catalyze specific chemical transformations.
Kathryn: What drew you to Penn State?
Jonathan: I was drawn here for many reasons! Some big ones: (1) Many of the research groups are interdisciplinary, and I thought I would have the opportunity to learn a lot of new things here as a result; (2) I am an alumnus of a big state school and I have always loved the idea of working at one as a faculty member; (3) everyone in this department was so welcoming and supportive. It was pretty much a no-brainer.
Kathryn: What was the first order of business when you got the keys to your lab? Did you set any goals upon starting your new role as an Assistant Professor of Chemistry?
Jonathan: I remember walking into my lab specifically thinking “holy cow; this first year is going to be a mad dash to get as many things into the door as possible.” My lab was literally an empty room, and every single experiment required a surprising amount of infrastructure. It is kind of funny thinking about the first few days (months, really) because it was such a blur. My students are always telling me about things I did or said during that period, and I have no recollection. There was just so much to do!
Kathryn: How did you want to distinguish your lab from others in the department?
Jonathan: I never really thought about how my lab can distinguish itself from others in the department. My group works in a research area that spans multiple traditional disciplines of chemistry, and I think it naturally results in a unique blend. If anything, I spend a lot of time admiring what is going on in the other labs here. I have gotten a lot of great ideas, and I am always trying to incorporate some of what is going on elsewhere into what we are doing.
Kathryn: What sort of expectations or hopes did you have for the students and postdocs you were looking for to join your lab group?
Jonathan: More than anything I was hoping to build an environment where people are excited to come to work, free to be creative, and feel safe and supported. Creating such a space is going to be an ever-evolving and ongoing collaborative effort; I was hoping to find people who shared this vision.
Kathryn: Can you explain the basis of your group’s research? Why is it important NOW?
Jonathan: Protons and electrons can move fast or slow. Cool stuff happens as a result.
More seriously – the central theme of our research is energy and sustainability. Much like in the macroscopic world, a straightforward route to sustainability is to reduce waste. What do we input, what gets used, and what is wasted? Our research asks these questions in the chemical context: “what reagents are we using, what products are we generating, and what is generated as waste?” Or in terms of energy, we might ask “where does the energy for this reaction come from, how much is used to do the chemistry, and how much is lost/wasted?” Ultimately, all chemical processes need to be driven by a renewable resource, and we need to think carefully about where we source our reagents and energy.
Kathryn: Have there been any notable obstacles in your lab’s work so far? How have you/how do you plan to overcome them?
Jonathan: I’m not sure that we have encountered a particularly notable obstacle. Of course, sometimes things don’t work exactly as we had hoped they would. Sometimes it is not worth getting to the bottom of why that is the case, and we might design experiments to work around the perceived problem. Other times we find something unexpected. But from every unexpected outcome is a new opportunity for discovery. I think that is the fun part of being a scientist. So, in a way, obstacles are good!
Kathryn: You’ve been with the Penn State Chemistry Department for a little over a year now. What do you think has been your lab’s biggest accomplishment so far?
Jonathan: Without a doubt the greatest accomplishments are the students who are training in the lab. Working with a first-year assistant professor is tough. Balancing coursework, teaching assignments, a personal life, and graduate research is already a very tall order. And for my students, they started at zero: with no established infrastructure or research projects. But they have all proven so resilient and adaptable. There is no doubt they are the greatest accomplishments of the lab.
Kathryn: This year you received an ACS Petroleum Research Fund (PRF) grant. Can you explain the impact that grant has had on you and your group?
Jonathan: For me, the ACS PRF grant represents a huge step in terms of professional development. The first year in any job involves a steep learning curve but transitioning from the bench-based role of postdoctoral researcher to the supervisory role of principal investigator involves an enormous change to your day-to-day. Sometimes I feel like I have no idea what I am doing! Part of this feeling comes from the absence of an easily quantified metric of success (and as a scientist who is so used to comparing experimental outputs to some baseline, that is hard to understand).
After an initial mad dash to fill the lab with equipment, it quickly dawned on me that the research enterprise is expensive. I realized that if I want to run a research group, I need to be able to raise money. Now, I can say I have successfully done it once, which was a clear metric that I was doing at least one thing correctly as a PI.
The grant has allowed me to support a postdoctoral scholar, Dr. Saeed Fosshat. Adding another person to the team has been huge, increasing the lab by 33%. Because he got his Ph.D. from another group, he brings a new perspective on how to approach scientific problems. And with his expertise we have been able to explore an additional new research direction. It was really a huge win.
Kathryn: How has it been working with your Penn State Chemistry Department colleagues in the last year?
Jonathan: As I mentioned earlier, I have great admiration for my colleagues here at Penn State, both professionally and interpersonally. I have also had a great time getting to know my colleagues, who have universally made me feel like they are invested in my success. It really feels like there is a whole community of people cheering for our research program.
I should also highlight how great it has been to start with so many other junior faculty. It feels like we are a cohort, almost like I’m back in my first year of graduate school. I think the job would be a lot lonelier without them. I’m really excited to see how our respective programs grow over the next few years.
Kathryn: Looking towards the future...where do you hope to see your lab in 5 years?
Jonathan: It's difficult to be sure. This past year has been unpredictable in so many ways, and on the longer time scale – five years ago I had no idea my life would look like this. So, I won’t make any specific predictions about the future. But in general terms I hope: (1) we will have shared our flavor of chemistry with the world, (2) we have continued to grow as a group, and as a close-knit team, and (3) that people are still looking at their time in the laboratory fondly.