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10 Questions for Biophysical Chemist: Wendy Shaw

May 12, 2011 - 5:21pm


Wendy Shaw  | Photo Courtesy of Pacific Northwest National Lab

Wendy Shaw | Photo Courtesy of Pacific Northwest National Lab

A while ago, we shared a great video from Pacific Northwest National Lab (PNNL) and Northwest Public Television on how PNNL researchers are working to solve the energy storage challenge.

We recently got a chance to talk with one of those scientists, Wendy Shaw, and learn more about her nature-inspired projects, why combustion and construction tools helped spark her interest in science and how she’s developing innovative, cost effective catalysts.

Wendy Shaw: It was applied math. I always found math boring, but doing something with it was a lot of fun.Question: Why did you decide to specialize in chemistry?

Q: What projects are you working on right now?

WS: I have two broad project themes, both generally classified as inspired by nature. One is focused on designing catalysts to convert hydrogen to protons and back. My approach is focused on trying to implement the features that enzymes use, without reproducing the entire enzyme. Specifically, my group is attaching an outer coordination sphere onto small molecule catalysts which are already good at producing or oxidizing hydrogen. This technique will help us build better catalysts that have the potential to be used in fuel cells in cars. So, the potential impact to our energy future and reducing our carbon footprint is real.

The second area focuses on understanding bio-mineralization proteins. These are proteins that help form hard minerals such as your bones and teeth. We can’t reproduce these materials’ properties in the lab so investigating the proteins responsible for their unique properties is very important in understanding how they control crystal growth. The specific protein I am studying is the enamel protein, amelogenin. Ultimately this research could lead to therapeutic solutions for enamel replacements. In the longer term, by understanding the materials properties that are the result of interactions with proteins, we may be able to develop advanced materials like thin light weight polymer sheets for bullet proof vests, or ship hulls that mollusks are unable to adhere to. Connected to energy, other biomineralization proteins, such as those found in mollusk shells, form CaCO3. If we could harness this process, it has the potential to sequester CO2, an important application for continued use of fossil fuels.

Q: Did you have a teacher or role model who inspired you to become a scientist?

WS: My high school chemistry teacher, Greg Goodnight, inspired me to get an undergraduate chemistry degree. My mentor and first employer, Jim Franz, inspired me to continue on and get a Ph.D. He also taught me the importance of curiosity-based science. I also had a physics professor in college who was very inspirational because of how much fun he had with science – fires, flying objects and sledgehammers were common features in his lectures!

Q: Do you have advice for students interested in science?

WS: Learn how to write and speak in public – these skills are critical to science, and I definitely did not appreciate how important when I was in school. If you can’t communicate your ideas, it is very crippling in science where nearly all sources of funding require a written proposal, and your research is communicated through oral presentations and papers. Also, take as much math as possible and work in a lab in the summer to find out if you really like it. Most of all have fun with science – getting paid to learn, with the potential to positively impact the way people live is fantastic!

Q: You’ve collaborated with other researchers who are working on projects to strengthen tooth enamel and improve bone regeneration. Can you tell us a bit about these experiences?

WS: Rather than trying to develop therapeutic replacements, most of the projects I am involved in are focused at the fundamental level of understanding interaction mechanisms between proteins and materials. Hopefully, understanding how proteins help hard tissues such as bones and teeth to form will ultimately lead to improvements in people’s health, but it is a much longer term goal. A couple of projects that have a more direct application as a goal have been focused on bone regeneration. One project, led by the University of Washington used one of the peptides I was investigating, modified to induce cell binding for bone regeneration. Another project, led by a collaborator at PNNL, is ongoing and is investigating the enhancement of bone growth by placing drugs in resorbable polymers at the injury site. It has been fun to work on projects with the potential of a more immediate impact on human health.

Q: Last year, you were awarded the prestigious Early Career Research Program grant which supported your work in developing effective and inexpensive catalysts. What makes these catalysts unique?

WS: A few things. We are working on catalysts that would work in fuel cells, which would make or break down hydrogen. They are based on nickel, which is cheap – much cheaper than platinum which is currently used in fuel cells. There is a lot of work being done on small molecule catalysts. My project builds on one of the more successful catalysts, focusing on finding the best of both enzymes and small molecule catalysts by combining them into one catalyst. Specifically, we are trying to build in proton channels, which we hope will make the catalyst more efficient.

Enzymes are very good at what they do, generally better than anything we can make, although, the base catalysts I am building on are close. Even though enzymes are good, they are big and not very practical to incorporate at an industrial level, so putting some of their features into small molecule catalysts would be an ideal compromise.

This also allows us to study features of the enzyme which are not necessarily that easy to study in the full enzyme. This way, we’re learning some fundamentals about how nature works, and hopefully building better catalysts because of that knowledge.

Q: Why are grant programs like this important?

WS: It is hard to get your foot in the door early in a scientific career. Competing with people who have 20 years of preliminary data and knowledge at their disposal makes it difficult to compete for a grant. Because young scientists have not had the opportunity to build a track record, this kind of project allows you to be evaluated based on your ideas and your potential.. There have been several studies suggesting that you have your best ideas early in your career, so it is important to fund ideas from both junior and senior scientists to get the positive benefits of both experience and naiveté.

Q: Do you have a favorite tool in the lab?

WS: Nuclear Magnetic Resonance in PNNL’s High-Field Magnetic Resonance Facility.

Q: What about a favorite fictional scientist?

WS: Ayla – Jean Auel’s prehistoric heroine. While not billed as a scientist, she was essentially exactly that – discovering medicinal properties by trial and error, developing surgical methods and learning how to make soap. We have come a long way, but the basic scientific process for discovery has been used for millennia. And who wouldn’t want to discover fire!

Q: What do you enjoy doing in your free time?

WS: I love the outdoors: backpacking, fly-fishing and canyoneering, to name a few. Also, working with kids – science or otherwise and woodworking, from small projects to construction projects.