Professor George Whitesides - An Interview
“I want to show you something,” Professor George Whitesides
said as I sat down in his office. He took out a starfish-shaped
object made of soft, flexible polymeric materials, and
demonstrated how the arms of the “starfish” moved when
air was injected via syringe. “This is the future of chemistry,”
he said. “We are giving people a starting point to think
about soft robotics.”
Professor George Whitesides, the Woodford L. and Ann A.
Flowers University Professor of Chemistry at Harvard University,
has spent a career providing “starting points” for people
to think about a variety of chemically-related endeavors.
Professor Whitesides elaborated on providing “starting
points” for other chemists. “There are two schools of thought,”
said Professor Whitesides. “One says you make big changes
when you invent new tools, and one says that you make big
changes when you use the tools. We are the tool makers.”
Research in the Whitesides Group
The research in the Whitesides group has covered a wide
range of topics throughout Professor Whitesides’ career.
“When we first started, we did real scholarship,” said
Professor Whitesides, investigating topics such as C-H
activation and detailed reaction mechanisms.
Over the years, Professor Whitesides has investigated diverse
topics such as electrets, soft-lithography, the origin
of life, self-assembled monolayers, soft robotics, and
microfluidics. “We try to go from program to program. Once
something is established, other people can use it,” Professor
Dr. Michael Filosa, Senior Manager of Science and Technology
at ZINK Imaging, recalled the diversity of topics that
were covered in a course he took with Professor Whitesides
at MIT. “It was probably one of the most eye-opening courses
I ever took,” said Dr. Filosa. “He talked about things
like organometallics, enzyme immobilization, and remote
functionalization of hydrocarbons – things that ended up
being linchpins of many people’s careers over the next
Selecting Research Topics
Professor Whitesides explained his strategy for choosing
research topics, and provided advice for newer chemists
on how to select appropriate topics. “The problems that
run the world are our problems,” said Professor Whitesides,
meaning that some of the most significant problems that
face humanity can and should be addressed by chemists.
example, meeting the growing energy needs of industrialized
societies in an environmentally responsible manner is something
that chemists can help solve.
Chemists may also have a responsibility to the public,
in part because chemists’ salaries are largely paid from
taxpayer funds. “Keep in mind that someone is not buying
a package of cigarettes in order to pay your salary,” Professor
Whitesides said. “What bearing does this have on the sort
of research that you do?”
As a result, Professor Whitesides advocates choosing research
questions with this fact in mind: chemists have both the
ability and responsibility to address significant issues.
Unfortunately, he pointed out, the current peer review
system may discourage this sort of ambitious thinking.
“We need the peer review system, because anything else
is worse,” said Professor Whitesides. “However, I would
prefer a world where assistant professors do something
that other people have not done,” as opposed to a system
where assistant professors try to do something that has
already been done, but do it better.
As an example of a chemist with broad ambition, Professor
Whitesides recalled that when Professor K. Barry Sharpless
came to MIT, he presented a long list of reactions that
he wanted to investigate. “You looked at the list and thought,
‘It can’t possibly go anywhere,’” Professor Whitesides
said. “But good things are bound to happen.”
Structure of the Whitesides Group
The Whitesides group is comprised of 8 graduate students
and more than 30 post-doctoral fellows and visiting scholars.
Professor Whitesides manages the research of the group
members primarily via the writing of successive paper drafts.
“As soon as we are confident there will be a paper, we
start writing,” said Professor Whitesides.
Over the course of several paper drafts, all of Professor
Whitesides’ research questions are fully explored and answered.
“I want to know how this works, and what the science is.
I also want to know why we are doing it,” Professor Whitesides
said. “I ask every question I can possibly ask until I
am satisfied with the answer.”
This research management strategy successfully promotes
linear and organized thinking. “George runs his group like
a corporate entity, in terms of document flow and accountability,”
said Dr. Dana Gordon, a former post-doc in the Whitesides
group, and current Deputy Chair of the Intellectual Property
Group at Foley Hoag, LLP “He was very good at making clear
what you needed to do.”
Professor Whitesides, who described himself as a “serial
entrepreneur,” is chairing a new ACS task force, charged
by ACS President Dr. Joseph Francisco with investigating
future of chemical entrepreneurship and the potential role
for ACS in facilitating such entrepreneurship.
As someone who has been involved in starting 12 companies
during his career, Professor Whitesides explained some
of the difficulties involved. “There is not a good culture
in chemistry for small companies,” said Professor Whitesides,
mostly because “not a lot of people do it.”
For chemists who are interested in entrepreneurship, Professor
Whitesides advised serving as an “apprentice” to a current
CEO. “Take advantage of their expensive mistakes, so that
you don’t make the same mistakes yourself,” Professor Whitesides
said. “There will be plenty of new mistakes for you to
“What will you work on?” Professor Whitesides asked me,
when I mentioned that I would soon be starting a faculty
position. “Why should I care?”
If one works on an important problem, Professor Whitesides
explained, people will care about the research regardless
of whether it is ultimately successful. Conversely, research
on a non-important problem will not garner much interest
even if it is successful.
“The future of chemistry is you and your generation,” Professor
Whitesides concluded. “Work on something important.”