Reactions: Yi Lu

Yi Lu is in the Department of Chemistry at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and works in the areas of bioinorganic, bioanalytical, and biomaterials chemistry.

1. What made you want to be a chemist?

My choice to being a chemist was not as glorifying as many others who choose chemistry as a major or career. When I was in high school, I was pretty good at all subjects. When it came down to choosing a major when I applied for colleges, I had a hard time making a decision. I ended up choosing chemistry as a major by a slim margin, partly due to the fact that it is the subject that I did not have to study very hard and still can get a top grade. In retrospect, I realized I had an excellent chemistry teacher who was not tough to students and yet was good at inspiring them. I think I benefited from his influence.

2. If you weren’t a chemist and could do any other job, what would it be – and why?

When I was a child, I wanted to be a librarian, because I loved reading all kinds of books, fictions or non-fictions, and I thought, naively, that librarian was an ideal job because I would be paid to read books that I love (and will always to be the first to get the sought-after books so that I don’t have to be put on the waiting list). My favourite weekend activity was to go to either local bookstores or local libraries to read and borrow books for the coming week. I also tried to figure out better book catalogue systems in the library, and systems so that I can get the book I want faster. Now with my busy schedule, I have not had much time to read much other than papers in science journals. I am longing for the quiet days so that I can read those novels that I have missed. So I would realize my childhood dream of being a librarian if I weren’t a chemist.

3. What are you working on now, and where do you hope it will lead?

My group members are working on three exciting areas. In the bioinorganic chemical area, we are working on designing functional metalloenzymes involved in biomass conversions, biofuel cells, photosynthesis and water oxidation. We have already found many non-covalent interactions that are responsible for high enzymatic functions. We hope this research will lead to efficient and cost-effective alternatives to native enzymes for alternative energies.

In the bioanalytical area, we are developing novel biosensors for on-site and real-time environmental monitoring and point-of-care medical diagnostic tests. This research has already lead to two startup companies that are commercializing sensor products, one of which uses the widely available personal glucose meter to detect many non-glucose targets (a paper published in Nature Chemistry last year).

Finally, we are exploring genertic codes using different combination of DNA sequences for abiological nanomaterials. We believe this research may lead to fine-control of nanomaterials assembly at an unprecedented level, similar to what DNA can do to control biological materials such as protein structures and functions.

4. Which historical figure would you most like to have dinner with – and why?

Linus Pauling. Among the many brilliant scientists, Linus Pauling has amazing deep insights into chemical principles and theories from many complicated data, and he is also very good at summarizing and explaining the principles and theories in ways that are quite accessible to non-specialists.

5. When was the last time you did an experiment in the lab – and what was it?

Embarrassingly, I have not done an experiment in the lab for a while. The last time I did an experiment was a few years ago when I tried to prepare and give a demo to high school students using research results carried out in my group — we have developed dipstick tests for toxic metal ions such as lead and organic molecules using DNAzyme or aptamer-functionalized gold nanoparticles. It is very cool that we can use what we have accomplished in the lab to inspire a young generation of students.

6. If exiled on a desert island, what one book and one music album would you take with you?

With so many books that I want to read, it is really difficult for me to decide on one book. May I bring a book series, such as Encyclopedia Britannica? I hope to know every entry in the encyclopedia by the time I am rescued from the desert island. For music album, I like classic music and would like to bring a complete album from Beethoven—it is the kind of music I have never been tired of hearing many times.

7. Which chemist would you like to see interviewed on Reactions – and why?

I have two suggestions. The first is Harry Gray from Caltech, my postdoc advisor. He is in my mind the Linus Pauling of today. The second is Joan Valentine, my Ph.D. advisor. She is an ideal mentor and I always learn new things from her.