Interview with Professor Maxwell J. Robb

Interview by Jonathan Chan, Associate Editor

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Fun trivia:

  • Favorite food: sushi
  • Favorite genre of music: punk rock
  • Favorite molecule: naphthopyran
  • Favorite TV show: obliged to say Breaking Bad
  • Favorite scientist(s): Craig Hawker and Jeffrey Moore (former research advisers)

1. What type of research does your lab work on, and how might this research change the world?

The research I do is in the field of synthetic polymer chemistry. We’re interested in making soft materials that are functional – they respond to their environment by changing color or changing some other property. In particular, we’re interested in developing polymers that undergo a chemical change under mechanical forces. Under stress, these molecules, called mechanophores, might fluoresce, emit light, or undergo a change in their electrical conductance. In terms of applications, we spend a lot of time developing molecules that will undergo different chemical reactions at discrete force thresholds. If each of these molecules produces a different color change, for example, under a different force, then we can obtain a visual indication for the level of stress in a material. Overall, our research aims to take advantage of mechanical stimulation to design materials with unusual and fascinating properties for a wide variety of different applications.

2. What computational tools does your lab use to inform its research? How good is the match between theory and experiment?

We’re predominantly an experimental group. But before we get into the lab, we do some relatively simple computational calculations on new potential mechanophore molecules. These calculations only take about a day or two to complete, and they allow us to predict the effect of elongation at the single-molecule level. Essentially, we are asking, “What happens to the molecule when we pull it apart?” These computations are a powerful tool because they help steer us in the right direction in determining whether a molecule will have the properties that we are trying to access. Once we have some positive computational results, then we go into the lab and try to synthesize these molecules. We are still trying to answer the question of whether our computational models are reliable. So far, these models have only been applied to a relatively small number of molecules. We’re working to determine if the models we use are effective in predicting molecular behavior more generally.

3. How does Caltech compare to previous institutions that you’ve worked in? How would you compare yourself as an undergrad to a “typical” Caltech undergrad?

Caltech is incredibly supportive of all faculty, including junior faculty like me. It’s also supportive of all members of the community. I think this support structure, in addition to how much the students have a role in governing how the institution operates, makes Caltech different than other institutions. I was an undergraduate student at a science and engineering school – the Colorado School of Mines. It was a relatively small school of about 4000-5000 undergrads, so I think my undergraduate experience was similar to Caltech’s in terms of the overall environment, the small size, and the high level of interaction I had with faculty.

4. Tell me about your typical day.

The nice thing about doing this job is that every day is a little different. When I come into work, I typically read literature in the morning for 30 or 45 minutes – anything that looks interesting. Then, I’ll typically respond to emails – that unfortunately takes a lot of time. I try to spend as much time as possible thinking about the research projects in my group and coming up with new research directions. When my group was just getting started, I spent a lot of time in the lab – sometimes doing experiments myself, but mostly working alongside my students and postdocs to help them with their experiments.  Now, I spend a lot of time meeting with my group members to discuss their research and help them evaluate the data that they’re collecting.  Then there’s preparing lecture notes and content for my courses.  And of course, lots of writing!

5. What types of pressures do you deal with as a professor and how do you manage that?

Financially, I am in the fortunate position in which I have startup support from Caltech. This support is designed to get my group’s research off the ground. However, there is a constant pressure to think about how to support our research through external grants. That’s something that professors have on their minds all the time – trying to find out which funding organizations are interested in the work we do, and to write proposals to secure that funding. The other pressure that I face, particularly as a pre-tenure faculty member, is making sure that the research we do will have a big impact on the community. As a professor, you have pressure from your peers and your senior colleagues – sometimes direct, but often it’s indirect.  We need to be doing cutting-edge research that’s pushing the boundaries of our field. So that’s what we strive for. I’m reminded of my favorite quote from Arnold Beckman – it’s a guiding philosophy for my work, and I try to emphasize it regularly to my students: “There is no satisfactory substitute for excellence.”

6. What do you think the next “big” discovery will be in polymer chemistry?

I think that controlled radical polymerization deserves to win a Nobel Prize. That’s not the next “big discovery” per say, but it would be the next “big recognition.” The problem is that so many people have contributed and influenced the field that it’s difficult for the Nobel Committee to come up with three undisputed visionaries. The ability to control polymerizations and synthesize polymers through radical methods has allowed polymer chemistry to impact so many scientific disciplines. One of the longstanding goals in polymer chemistry has been to develop sequence-defined polymers – much like how proteins are defined by an exact sequence of amino acids. Currently, with synthetic polymers, we can’t control the exact sequence and the composition of each repeating unit in that polymer structure with the precision, for example, of proteins or other natural polymers. Being able to do that is certainly a “holy grail” of polymer chemistry. With that said, there’s still the open question of whether being able to control the sequence even matters – maybe a highly sequence-controlled polymer would not perform better than polymers in which the sequences are less well-defined.

7. What interests do you have outside of science, and how much time do you spend on those interests?

I like outdoor activities a lot. I like to hike. I like to golf. In October, there’s a CCE division golf tournament in which grad students, staff members, and a couple faculty members participate. I played terribly in that, but it was fun. On a Sunday, I try to go on a hike. It doesn’t happen all that often, but I try to because I think a balance between work and leisure is really important; you need to get outside of your head sometimes and take a break from your academic routine. That way, you can come back to your work refreshed and ready to focus.

8. Today, America is undoubtedly the world’s scientific leader. Will it still be the leader in science in the next fifty years and beyond?

It’s an important question. I hope so. It’s very dependent on policy makers in this country. As scientists, we need to do a much better job in convincing our fellow nonscientist citizens why scientific research and science education is important. We need to convince them what science can do for the economy and for different sectors outside academia. I think that America will remain a leader in science inasmuch as we have the support of funding agencies and policymakers. Funding for more fundamental research is critical as well. A lot of grant-funded research now is focused on direct applications – we are overly concerned with how the new technology is going to immediately affect the community in the next month or year. We need to look beyond that into developing new understandings of the world that might lead to advances we haven’t yet conceived. Another policy-related issue is our ability to recruit and retain the most talented people from around the world. Diversity has always contributed to the strength of our science and it’s something we need to continue working toward. It’s scary to think that the future of American leadership in science is uncertain right now, but I still believe that the U.S. will continue to lead. Caltech is one of the great beacons for science and so we are in a position – and have a responsibility – to lead by example and continue the tradition of excellence in American science and ingenuity.

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