Prof. Whitesides is a prolific chemist with a long and distinguished career spanning almost five decades. Over the years he has published more than a 1000 scientific articles and has won multitudes of awards, including the Priestley Medal (2007), the highest honor conferred by the American Chemical Society. He is a member of the National Academy of Science and the National Academy of Engineering, an Honorary Fellow of the Royal Society of Chemistry, and has served in advisory positions for the National Research Council, National Science Foundation and NASA. He is also on the board of directors of several companies, including the non-profit Diagnostics For All.
How has the role of scientists in society changed over these decades?
“I would say since the mid-20th century the role of science has changed from being a means to protect the nation, to a tool used to protect the environment and to improve human health through the development of new drugs and technologies; during the Sputnik era everyone wanted to be a scientist, and the role of science [in the U.S.] was clear. In general, however, scientists have done an inadequate job of explaining the role of science to the public in terms that are easily understood. The role of science, in the perception of society, is usually boiled down to bottom lines such as ‘to cure disease.’ (…) The basic issue in the U.S. is this: the culture of our time is science and technology. Around the world this culture is different, but social networks are connecting people more and more and spreading this culture [of science and technology]. The reaction of society to science and technology ultimately changes how science and technology are perceived.”
What do you see as the “next big thing”, that is a field in chemistry that will drastically impact society?
“Before World War II, the big advances were in chemistry and in mechanical inventions. After World War II, the advances came in electronics, information technology, and molecular biology. Now I think chemistry is again in a situation to help answer the next set of big questions such as ‘What is life?’ and ‘How does the brain work?’ Neuroscience, energy, and the environment, fields in which chemistry has made significant contributions, will also be impactful to society. (…) In healthcare, we need a different philosophy and better business models. It can cost $150,000 for a cancer treatment that keeps you alive but that causes you extreme discomfort. Is this something that we really want? Advanced and improved public health methods such as preventative health measures, clean water, and a clean environment can improve health more so than the incremental improvements provided by the latest [medical] technologies and procedures. Clean water and a clean environment, these are chemistry problems. The development of hydrogen fuel cells, the erosion of land, the rusting of infrastructure and equipment, the waste of energy due to friction, these are also problems chemistry can address. The big questions, however, are ‘What is life? How did it develop and how did it develop the characteristics that it has?’ I want to know how chemicals brought together in a bag called ‘a cell’ make that cell alive.”
What do you feel are the biggest unanswered scientific questions in your research?
“Regarding life these questions include: ‘What is the origin of life and where did life come from?’ and ‘How do we humans think?’ With drug development the question is, ‘What are the interactions of drugs with proteins that turn proteins on or off?’ My lab also studies flames and we ask, ‘What are flames?’ There are mixed conclusions on what flames actually are. Overall, I have a very incomplete picture of many common things. (…) Other questions I have are ‘What are the best structures of society?’ and ‘What is the relationship between cause and effect in large scale phenomena?’ (…) In science you can do something to address these questions and problems; you have a unique set of tools. Science is everyday life, but it can make things that we cannot imagine. Who would have thought that the development of the transistor would one day lead to worldwide social networks? However, science is only one of the tools that can be used to help solve the problems of society; it is just one approach to these problems. (…) Ultimately the big questions are what make society run; they animate society.”
How is your lab using chemistry to address the problems of the developing world?
“We are trying to make technologies simple and robust. Our paper chip technology (Figure 1) is an example of this and is a new [health] diagnostic tool that is made using a technique similar to inkjet printing. We are trying to combine sophisticated chemistry with large-scale production of inexpensive products. We are combining new ideas, new technologies, and well-developed engineering methods to not only improve healthcare in the developing world, but to also create technologies that will help the developed world reduce healthcare costs. We are focusing on diagnostics, but we are also thinking about energy. If you have a diagnostic device on a paper chip, you need to think about how to power it. Once you have diagnosed a health problem, you can then begin to think about how to treat and prevent these problems through better nutrition and better food sources.”
Figure 1. Paper chips – low-cost paper-based diagnostic devices that can be prepared relatively easily in resource-poor settings. Chemically-treated paper is patterned with microfluidic channels, which direct microliter-volumes of fluid samples by capillary action to different test zones for multiple diagnostic assays. On the right is a 3D paper chip composed of stacked layers of paper bound together by double-sided adhesive tape, significantly increasing the number of test spots available for a single sample. (Images courtesy of the Whitesides research group)
Could you describe your “simple solutions” approach to engineering?
“Simple solutions are the things that are the most robust, the most useful, and the most dependable. Complicated things are not usually very useful. Although the level of scientific and technological understanding behind a simple device may be high, the function of the device or the technology is very predictable and useful. To create simple devices is difficult and sometimes it does not always work.”
What are the biggest obstacles in translating what scientists do in lab to technologies that have a real impact on the lives of people?
“There are a couple of different answers to this. (…) Scientists show that something is possible, but not necessarily that something is useful or practical, i.e., whether it is cost effective or has an appropriate shelf life, etc. The challenge is to distribute technology and bring it to a level where people can understand it, to create something that actually works and that is useable by those who want to use it. The main obstacle, however, is money. Let’s say it costs $1 to invent something. It then costs approximately $10 to engineer a prototype, $100 to manufacture the product, and $1,000 to sell and distribute the product. (…) Investors want an immediate return on investment, making the development of new technologies difficult. Financially-driven capitalism is an obstacle, but this is another topic.”
Is the public justified in their worries about the potential dangers of science and engineering, such as pollution, the depletion of resources, the dangers of nanotechnology, etc? What can be/is being done to assuage these fears?
“I think it is a misconception that science is dangerous. Science and technology do not cause bad things to happen. Science and technology may be used in undesirable ways, but they are not inherently dangerous. People want and demand energy, cars, SUVs, food, and consumer products. Pollution is not a danger of science but an issue of individual choice. Wealthy societies demand things that deplete resources and cause pollution. Capitalism contributes to this, too. Concerning nanotechnology, it is currently in cell phones and other electronic devices. It has fundamentally changed society by making society much more connected. Technology enables society to build attractive and convenient tools. This inevitably brings with it positives and negatives. Science is sometimes used in ways that are not always positive, but there are advantages and disadvantages to the uses of technology by people.”
What advice do you have to young people aspiring to become scientists?
“I would say, ‘Do your own thing.’ Pick problems you care about, and do not be driven by money or fame. Pick problems that you are emotionally invested in. Science gives you the freedom to solve problems that you are interested in. Don’t waste the opportunity to solve the problems that appeal to you by working on problems that others deem important.”
Interview conducted May 12th, 2011 by Don Dressen, a PhD student in Biophysics at Harvard University.