Reactions – Aaron Wheeler

Aaron Wheeler is in the Department of Chemistry at the University of Toronto and works to develop miniaturized systems to solve problems in chemistry, biology, and medicine.

1. What made you want to be a chemist?

I see that many of the other interviewees had formative experiences with chemistry sets, but if I am honest, I have to admit that ended up in chemistry a bit by accident – I enjoyed the classes and labs and my interest was encouraged by supportive teachers along the way. If we played it over again a few times, I could see the results going a different direction. That said, now that I am here – I love it. Regardless of whether the questions you are interested in are in physics, biology, medicine, engineering, food, the environment, etc., chemistry is centrally important. It’s a great platform from which to dabble in almost anything.

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

Life is interesting, and there are too many options to consider. Staying within science… I think I would like to be a neuroscientist. The link between the chemistry and biology of the brain and thoughts, feelings, and memories is such a fascinating story, one that’s just beginning to be understood.

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

My group and I are developing miniaturized “lab-on-a-chip” systems relying on microfluidics, and we’re applying them to a bevy of different applications, including the development of tools for analyzing proteomes, methods for growing, culturing, and assaying rare cell populations in multiplex, and low-invasive techniques for screening patients for risk of developing cancer. What I love about this field: we get to dabble in all kinds of interesting areas – collect clinical samples one day, don a bunny suit and fabricate devices in the clean-room the next, fix the $&%^!! mass spectrometer the day after that, and on and on. I get bored with routine, and this job is anything but that.

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

These are hard-hitting questions… I think for this one I might go with Charles Darwin. He was obviously a source of some wide-ranging, transformative ideas, but he was interested in problems big and small. Apparently, he had a great passion for earthworms (!), going as far as to evaluate their behaviour over several decades by sprinkling markers on the ground to measure worm-driven soil turnover rates. I imagine that with some coaxing, a conversation with Charles D. would cover almost any topic under the sun (or under the soil, as the case may be).

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

When starting the lab a few years ago, I did a bit of work, mostly with instrument installation and setup. Since then, I have been a desk-monkey – grants don’t write themselves, you know! I do love being involved in the experiments, though, and (to my students’ dismay, I fear) I try to participate in experiment planning, execution, and interpretation as much as possible. This is what makes the job so much fun! But it’s important to remember that the (science) work done in academia is 100% driven by students. I am not sure that this is recognized by people outside of the academy.

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

The Sceptical Chymist does not pull punches with these questions! For a book, I would likely choose one of Jared Diamond’s tomes on the evolution of peoples and societies — I learn new and interesting ideas each time that I go back to them. For music? I guess I would stick to my Southern roots and would pick a Skynyrd album, but this question is outdated, right? Can’t I just bring my ipod which is loaded with ‘every song I have ever listened to’TM?

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

Chemists who would give interesting answers to these questions include Dick Zare at Stanford and Jonathan Sweedler at Illinois.