John A. Leighty Distinguished Professor of Analytical Chemistry, Purdue University, USA
A mentor or educator who inspired you? Graham Cooks was my thesis advisor at Purdue and, of all the many people I’ve been fortunate enough to learn from, has had the greatest impact on my journey as a scientist. His levels of creativity, curiosity, and effort are inspirational. I can’t begin to list the important lessons I learned from Graham, but one thing sticks with me: we are all unique, which requires developing an approach that is consistent with our own personality, priorities, etc. For this reason, I have always observed other scientists I admire and sought to adapt the practices that lead to their success and work for my personality.
Qualities of a successful mentor or educator? The culture of an education group is particularly important in enabling each member’s individual development – which is influenced by the dynamic personalities within the group. However, the mentor or leader of the group has a dominant influence on group culture (e.g., competitive vs. cooperative). With this responsibility, it is important to remain vigilant in maintaining an atmosphere that best facilitates personal development and to clearly articulate and model the expectations. If the mentor does this well, older students will reinforce positive values and strongly contribute to education goals – including problem solving and teamwork skills.
Biggest challenge facing the field?There is a lack of recognition of measurement science at the molecular level as an intellectual pursuit in its own right. Progress in all of the molecular sciences obviously requires measurements, but the prevailing view among both scientists (outside of analytical chemistry) and funding agencies is that the measurement already serves the need.
Though many scientists will agree that a lot of our greatest discoveries and developments were made without a motivation to solve the measurement problems to which they are now applied, there is still a push to stick with a universally understood phrase: “necessity is the mother of invention.”
The laser was not developed with either femtosecond spectroscopy or reading bar codes in grocery checkouts in mind. Mass spectrometry was not developed to identify post-translational modifications of proteins. Magnetic resonance was not developed to locate tumors. Simply by looking at the subjects awarded with Nobel Prizes, we can see examples directly related to measurement science that emerged from origins quite distant from their ultimate impact.
The problem arises from the fact that funding for analytical chemistry is almost exclusively driven by “need.” No one dares submit a proposal without a strong case for addressing a currently recognized measurement demand. However, the breakthroughs that we need will probably come from unexpected directions. Society would be better served by researching interesting phenomena that has no immediate or obvious killer application. A lack of appreciation and support for exploratory activities in analytical science has in some ways relegated the field to a secondary status. This inhibits the rate at which we can discover ground-breaking ideologies and game-changing developments.