Reactions – Jonathan Sweedler

Jonathan Sweedler is the James R. Eiszner Family Chair in Chemistry and has appointments in Physiology and Neuroscience at the University of Illinois at Urbana/Champaign; his research area involves analytical neurochemistry and he studies novel neurochemistry related to learning, behaviour and neuronal network formation.

1. What made you want to be a chemist?

I have always loved science and knew I wanted a career in science research. My original exposure to chemistry was home chemistry sets and learning how to make reactions that go boom – while perhaps not too acceptable in our society today, this was more accepted in the 1970s. Given this interest, I guess it is not too surprising that my first vhemistry-related job was working at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory for three summers while I was an undergraduate student.

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

Since receiving my PhD in chemistry, I have moved my research toward my other science fascination — neuroscience and understanding the functioning of the brain. About one third of my group now includes students from the physiology and neuroscience departments and the rest are from the chemistry department. If I wasn’t a chemist, I would still be at a university but likely housed in a neuroscience department. I enjoy university research too much to do anything else!

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

My group has two major interests — one is creating new analytical tools to probe nanoliter and smaller samples for their chemical constituents (sometimes such measurements are called metabolomics and proteomics), and the other applies these techniques to well defined neuronal networks to understand cell to cell signalling in the brain. We characterize novel neurochemical pathways related to neuropeptides, serotonin, chiral amino acids and nitric oxide, as well as try to determine the physiological function of the new compounds we uncover.

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

What a question. Perhaps Antony van Leeuwenhoek; he created some of the first effective microscopes and made some of the most important discoveries in biology, such as discovering bacteria, microscopic protists, sperm cells, blood cells, and rotifers. Of course, he only spoke Dutch and I do not, and so perhaps this would not be the best dinner conversation.

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

I still go to marine stations to collect selected marine invertebrates as they make wonderful models to study learning and memory in a well defined neuronal network. I can collect animals, study their brains and probe their unique neurochemistry. Yes, spending time (and diving for animals) in the Caribbean or the Pacific Northwest really is part of my “job.”

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

So I am allowed a CD player and power with only one CD, but not my i-pod full of all my favourite music, games, and texts? How about if I use the power supply for the CD to power a nice two-way radio? OK, as far as the book, either the complete works of William Shakespeare (I have not read many of his plays), or one of the “How to Survive on a Desert Island” survival guides I see listed on Google.

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

Richard Zare at Stanford University: He is a very creative person; I am sure his answers would be more interesting than mine.