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Pathways, Perspective, and People

The presentation was given by Professor Angela Wilson during her investiture as an MSU Foundation Professor on October 29, 2019.

Video transcript below:


[Angela Wilson, standing at a podium with visual slides on the screen behind her].

Well, first of all, I very much thank the Provost Office for the opportunity to be a foundation professor. That has been a real key, as Rob said, to recruiting me here to MSU. I certainly want to thank the College of Natural Sciences for honoring me today. And I also thank Sarah and the rest of the Nat Sci team for putting this together. Appreciate it.

Today I’m going to talk a little bit about my research, but I think in terms of putting research in perspective, there’s a lot of people behind that research as well. I think it’s so important to acknowledge them, and so I’m going to talk about pathways and perspectives, as well as people.

First of all, this is from my time at University of North Texas, University of North Texas was somewhere that, you know Rob mentioned, kind of my crazy early pathway and it was trying to be in the same time, at the same place as, as a spouse who was in the military at the time, you know, trying to be in Oklahoma. He was based in Oklahoma. That added to a lot of our career challenges, and at that point in time, working on an MBA, there’s a crazy pathway. There weren’t a lot of universities jumping out to recruit me. I was very grateful for the opportunity to go to University of North Texas. My spouse at the time really wanted to be in the Dallas area – that was his top choice – so, I went to University of North Texas.

I was really grateful for the opportunity there. The university was 26,000 when I started, ended up being a university of about 40,000 students.  We were very aggressive in terms of really trying to build the graduate program, even though we had University of Texas, Texas A&M, Rice, SMU, Southern Methodist University, Baylor, the list goes on and on in terms of Texas universities. We were really aggressive about trying to get students. We got to the point where we were competing very easily with Berkeley in computational chemistry and other places, as well. I think we really spent a lot of time visiting four-year universities, really getting to know them and really trying to make it so our place was somewhere that everyone wanted to come. You can see the opportunities we had from really great students through the years. And, I’m grateful for all that they’ve done. These were mainly graduate students, a few post-docs as well, but largely graduate students and some undergraduate students.

Having been in North Texas for 16 years, I had the opportunity to really build up a lot of collaborations, a lot of great collaborations in chemistry, but also collaborations across campus. This didn’t include the center that Rob mentioned that had 20 PIs, about 100 graduate students, and postdocs involved in that. We also did a lot of collaboration. I did a lot of collaboration with people in areas like sociology, computer science, and philosophy materials on a lot of different types of projects. That was quite interesting. But, you know, truly this could not have happened without really amazing staff for the three different roles that I had at the university and they were really key to enabling me to accomplish what I was able to accomplish research-wise and otherwise, coming to a new university.  I had lots of opportunities while I was at North Texas. I never thought I would leave North Texas, but I kind of felt like I had reached kind of the pinnacle of what I could do at North Texas. I was Associate Vice Provost for Faculty before I left, as well as running a large center. I was really kind of thinking about new opportunities that no other university really resonated with me like MSU did. I visited MSU about 10 years earlier and what really resonated with me was, first of all, MSU has got one of the top theoretical and computational chemistry programs in the country, so of course, that was quite interesting.

But also, we actually happened to have the conference out at the Kellogg Center and there I was so impressed with a number of combinations of things and certainly it was the agricultural piece, my father, my grandfather, and also having Lansing here as the Capitol. My grandfather was a state senator as well as a farmer. And so that really resonated with me. But also, I was kind of born and bred, in terms of, at the department of energy labs. I did a summer internship when I was an undergraduate student. My first computational chemistry research was at Pacific Northwest National Lab. So, to actually have a DOE facility here at MSU, we are a university like no other. And so that is what really drew me to it. Truly, I left an administrative position and great research opportunities, because MSU had that and the icing on the cake was truly, they had a professorship and I’ve really appreciated that and I’m so glad that I did come here. It’s been a wonderful experience.

I’ve only been here fully for one year and I appreciated my graduate students who stuck with me. While I was at NSF, calls at all kinds of crazy hours and a group meeting times and all of that. They were always very flexible and they’ve been very flexible since I’ve arrived as well because a couple things.  This is my group, a current group here in the bottom right. Not quite everyone. I just got a new postdoc arrived this week. These are some of my students here and postdocs.

I’ve really had the opportunity this past year. I did a lot of running around trying to meet new people and do a lot of collaborations. One of the things we’ve just done is we’ve just started a center for quantum computing science and engineering. MSU’s got 20 years of rich history in this area. So we’ve kind of got people together and we’re pursuing some new national initiatives in this area and we’re quite excited about that.

I’ve had the opportunity, I’ll tell you a little bit more of the story later, but I’m collaborating with Wei Liao in Agricultural Engineering and Mitch Smith.  I never in my life, you’ll hear about my research in a minute, thought I would be collaborating with somebody in fisheries, but I am now a quantum chemist, not really kind of a natural connection. I’m collaborating with folks, the folks in chemistry. Xuefei Huang and I have published a number of papers together now. Rob Abramovitch and Edmund Ellsworth – we’re doing some work in terms of drug development, some pretty interesting work. Last year I had the opportunity to spend the year as an academic advancement fellow, through the Academic Advancement Network here at MSU and we’re not allowed to be assigned to our own colleges, but I was assigned to the College of Agricultural Natural Resources because I had my choice. I really wanted to learn more about agriculture and agricultural research here at MSU.

I’ve had the opportunity to develop a leadership program for faculty, department chairs, associate chairs and some of the directors in the college, which were actually launched earlier this month.  I’m also working with Quentin Tyler,  Associate Dean for Diversity and Equity, trying to develop a program of four postdoctoral fellows and really trying to increase the diversity of faculty here at MSU through this program.

But onto my research, in terms of research, you know, most people think of chemistry – if they think about chemistry research, they picture folks in lab coats and doing things with their hands in the lab. Ours is quite different. Everything we do is on computer.

There are some people that are drawn to this area because they are complete disasters in the laboratory or you’ve probably seen them, for those of you who’ve taught general chemistry lab ever, you’ve certainly identified those students quite readily. And some of my colleagues have gone into this field because of that. But for me, it was a matter of, I really liked to look at a lot of different projects and I’m very interested and always bounced between deciding whether I wanted to major in biology and chemistry and physics in management kept that kept popping up mathematics or computer science. And so this really provided me with a way to kind of mix multiple areas.

Now the power of computing.  We’ve heard from Jim in terms of some of the power of computing and for me, as I mentioned, I started my career actually at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation, Pacific Northwest National Laboratory. There they have a huge mess in terms of environmental cleanup. And so I was not doing so much environmental cleanup. What I was doing is developing tools that they did not have in computational methods that were needed to help try to decipher some and understand some of the problems that were occurring from buried nuclear waste buried ages and ages ago. They’re buried in these concrete tanks and these tanks, some of them are actually leaking.

Unfortunately, this is located next to the Columbia River, which is, you know, obviously a tributary to the Pacific, to the Pacific Ocean. So this is a real challenge and it continues to be a challenge at PNNL. This is just an example of an area where computation is needed because trying to do experiments, yes, experiments are very important but very, very complex. What has happened in terms of the radioactive waste in each of those tanks is quite different from tank to tank. And they’ve got many, many, dozens and dozens of these buried tanks there. So trying to do studies of these is a very complex, very expensive proposition, very toxic as well. And so, they have one of the largest groups of computational chemists in the world actually doing research there, trying to understand the challenges.

Computation plays a role in trying to understand complicated experiments. I’ll give you some examples shortly, but also it’s very important in industry. And here’s an example. Example here is pharmaceutical companies. It takes a very, very long time to bring new drugs to market. Average time frame is about eight to 12 years. Not only are their experimental studies very, very costly in terms of time, as well as the chemicals, the resources and time is money if you’re trying to develop a new drug.

Trying to find a new drug is like looking for a needle in a haystack. It’s very difficult to try to find a new drug and then to bring it to clinical trials doesn’t mean it’s going to be successful either. Very complex process.

Now using computational methods, we certainly can’t tell you what the miracle drug is, but what we can tell you is we can basically reduce the size of the haystack. We can reduce basically the number of things that need to be studied experimentally. I’ll tell you a little bit about our work in that area as well.

Don’t worry, I’m not going to show you too many equations. But, in talking about my prior research, my career really started doing quantum mechanical research. What is that? It’s not all quantum mechanics now, but most of it is. Quantum mechanics is a very powerful computational approach, very powerful approach in terms of really understanding molecules like the reactions. All you have to do is solve this one equation. This one equation tells you about all the different pieces and parts of a molecule and their interactions, the electrons, the nuclei.

It’s so complex that many years ago Paul Dirac, who won the Nobel prize in physics, said that yes, we basically know how to, we’ve got this wonderful law, the Schrodinger equation, that allows us to really be able to describe lots of properties of molecules. But the problem is this equation. It looks so simple, but is really so complicated. We just can’t solve it. These days, we can try to solve it, but we can only solve it exactly for one electron system. Most of the world has a lot more than one electron in it. So much of the field is really driven. Those of us who do development of new methodologies are really trying to identify ways we can approximate those and come up and be able to describe lots of properties.

So a lot of my work is equations and so right now, today, I hope that you’ll just bear with me and just believe that a miracle occurs and all of a sudden we can lead to all types of wonderful applications, which I’ll tell you about. What I want to point out is a periodic table.

Now, a lot of research in my field particularly is focused on the earlier part of the periodic table. A lot of what we call the living elements, elements that comprise the body elements that are so important, organic elements that are so absolutely critical to life. Now one of the things we were very interested in is we really wanted to move further down the periodic table. We wanted to be able to look at transition metals as well as heavy elements systems that, I’ll tell you more reasons why in a moment. But these were very important to us and actually a number of years ago, long before I even thought about coming to Michigan, Dow Chemical invited me up a couple of times. Lockheed Martin also invited me up a couple of times to visit them in New Jersey, as well. They also were headquartered in Fort Worth, Texas. So I went to talk with them a number of times and they were very interested in very fundamental interactions. For many years, I just studied very small molecules and they were very interested in the binding of very, very small molecules to materials or other small molecules. Dow had talked with me because they were very frustrated. One of the very basic processes that they use is hydro formulation. They use this as an example to me and hydro formulation is a very important industrial reaction.

It is the largest volume industrial process, polymers, cosmetics, detergents, plastics, therapeutics, all are because of hydro formulation. But they were very frustrated because you need to have very good descriptions of the energetics. My group does a lot of work trying to describe energetics. Energetics are important to determine whether or not a reaction happens, whether or not a process occurs and whether or not at what pace, basically, it occurs at. We need to be able to describe this as actually a good description. We try to get things within energy predictions within 1kcal/mol. It’s basically an order of rate. You want to, if you’re partnering with people doing experimental work, you want to be able to tell them that yes, you can get this reaction done in your lifetime rather than it’s never going to happen. You want to know if a process is going to happen in a hundred years or 10 years or a year or a day or a second.

That’s part of understanding the thermal chemistry and reactivity of different molecules. Through the years, my group has done a lot of work trying to understand reactivity, trying to describe molecules, developing methods and approaches to do that. How to describe, how you break apart molecules as well as we wanted to describe transition metal and heavy elements, which I’ll talk about in a minute.

We also wanted to have methods that are actually quite practical and accurate and efficient. Many times, people in my field develop methods that no one but that research group can understand. We wanted to develop methodologies that anyone can use, anyone can use pretty simply. Dow was quite frustrated because density functional theory (these are all different types of density functional methods) it’s a class of quantum mechanical methods and so many people are using these approaches and they said they just cannot get good enough descriptions of most of their processes using density functional approaches. In fact, they said that basically you might as well throw darts, gas filled of course, whatever in terms of trying to predict some of the reactions. They wanted to have different methodologies. And so we’ve gone to work through the years trying to develop new strategies and we’ve done some of the largest studies to date of transition metal species with our new methodologies to try to show indeed we’ve got an effective method that is quite, quite useful for describing some of these industrial processes.

So something else we’re interested in moving further down the periodic table. I’ve told you about a little bit about hydro formulation industrial processes, but we’re also very interested in these elements. Some along these lanthanides, some of the lower part of the periodic table.

These are very, very difficult elements and when they’re within a molecule, very difficult to describe. They’re used in so many different things. They’re used in DVDs, they’re used in rechargeable batteries, guided weapons, stealth technology in our cars, in our cell phones. In fact, I kind of chuckled when I saw the periodic table of iPhones in terms of a lot of these rare earth elements are in here. One of the challenges with these rare earth elements is the fact that they, even though they are not the rarest, this is basically abundance of elements in the world. One of the challenges with the rare earth elements is that even though they are not among the rarest of metals, they are pretty rare because most of them are produced in China. And so, you know we use them in our iPhones, they’re hard to recycle, they’re hard to replace. We don’t know exactly best ways to replace them or to reuse them. We actually ship our iPhones over to China to try to have these elements separated. And so we really need to do a lot of work to try to better understand how to replace, how to recycle and how to reuse these types of elements.

We’re doing a lot of work in these areas and some of the methods we’ve developed very recently are methods that are actually quite effective for the lanthanides and the actinides, these lower element species. And so we’re actually going to be doing some work with Los Alamos on nuclear waste, dealing with some of the new methods we’ve developed.

Another area we’re involved in is looking at basically what happens over time to different types of processes. We’re very interested in things like solar cells. Solar cells unfortunately utilize some of the rarest of metals. Here they often use ruthenium. If you’re looking at some of these die coated solar cells that are actually quite useful, I’m not going to go through all the processes here, but one of the challenges is we need to use something that is actually much more abundant. And so we would like to use something like iron. One of the challenges is that the processes are so complex that we really needed to have new methodologies to use to be able to describe them. We’re doing some work in this area, looking at alternative pathways to things like dye-sensitized solar cells, and trying to replace ruthenium with more earth abundant solutions like iron.

Also, something that we’re doing with some of these quantum dynamics methods that we’re developing is, I just brought in Sung Won who just arrived this week,  last week actually, and we’re going back into the main group and one of the things Jim had mentioned was methane. We’re looking at methane a little bit differently. We’re looking at the conversion of methane into more accessible chemicals like syn gas, methanol, ethanol. Ethylene is some of the work that we’re going to be doing.  We’re also doing some work related to quantum computing using some of these methods as well.

So the quantum mechanical methods is a little hard if you’re not a specialist in quantum mechanics to really kind of grasp all that we are doing. We’re also doing things on, I would say, a much more practical side as well. More practical to the general public and one of the things we’ve been doing is we’ve been doing a lot of work in drug development. About eight years ago I was approached by a pharmaceutical company, Reata pharmaceuticals. Reata does a lot of work in looking at different types of anti-inflammatory diseases. Actually, if you’re looking at stock, their stock starts off at 29. I never bought it. It just hit 200 this week. I wish I had bought some. So we’ve been partnering with them now for eight years. When they approached me, I said, I’ve never done any work with proteins. They said, would you be willing if we give you a postdoc, would you be willing to try? And, I said, yes, indeed. And so they continue to support my group now for eight years.

Some of the things we’ve been looking at are called NRF two activators and ROR gamma inhibitors. And we’re looking at a number of different types of diseases. In fact, early next year they should have the release of the very first drug for chronic kidney disease. It’s in the final stages, a clinical, clinical three trials. It’s doing very, very well. This should help out patients who basically are facing dialysis and beyond. So this is something we’ve been doing, but this is really sprung off some new opportunities coming here to MSU.

One of them is, we are looking at now, in partnership with a couple of other faculty here at MSU, we’re beginning to look at tuberculosis within the group. They have done a lot of work in terms of of Reata. So we’re doing a, you know, one of the things with tuberculosis, of course, is it’s a leading cause of death by infectious disease. And one of the challenges is the treatment cycle is really daunting. The treatment cycle takes at least six months and it’s a many different steps of antibiotics and it’s got very serious side effects and so new pathways are needed.

We’re also doing a lot of work in terms of structural functional relationships, inhibitor signaling pathways, lots of different steps that are needed, important in terms of drug design. So, this is something that’s new, completely new for us and I want to thank my colleague who’s sitting in the back.  It’s always great to get to know people. My colleague is an environmental engineer. And so he was asking me, do you know anything about PFAS? And it was like, no, I don’t know anything about PFAS. PFAS are Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances. If you watch even the local news, I guarantee that you probably hear something, at least twice a week, about PFAS.

Okay. Couple of things about PFAS. Here’s a couple of quotes. New drinking water crisis dwarfs Flint tragedy. Another one just came out yesterday, landmark class action over PFAS contamination in Australia announced by Erin Brockovich. I’m sure you’ve seen the story about Erin Brockovich many years ago where basically she had discovered some, she had discovered a lot, of people were having issues of significant health issues, contamination of basically from a chromium six compounds by PPG and she, of course, brought a class action suit. She’s doing the same thing now with PFAS contamination in Australia and there’s now over 40,000 people involved in the case.

I’ll tell you more. The DEQ here in Michigan says that harmful PFAS might contaminate more than 11,000 sites statewide here in Michigan. Now, one of the things you see often in the news is when they talk about PFAS, they talk about how it’s really because of this firefighting foam. They look at a lot of military bases that have been closed down and they say, Oh, it’s the firefighting foams. There’s over 4,000 different PFAS related substances. What they are is basically a carbon backbone, saturated with fluorine compounds. Most of the ones that they’ve been implicated in EPA has encouraged companies not to use PFAS compounds, at least ones that are considered long-chain PFAS compounds. Long-chain PFAS compounds, basically have eight carbons surrounded by florins and then some sort of end group. The challenges.

Okay, let me tell you a little bit more about where they’re found. So yes, they are in firefighting foam. However, I have a student, who’s planning on going to a dental school who mentioned it’s even in glide dental floss. You probably heard the names Scotchgard and Wolverine boots. These are things where these compounds are. Pizza boxes, hamburger wrappers, popcorn containers, Teflon pans. The list goes on and on and on.

In terms of cosmetics, where these PFAS compounds basically appear,

Scotchgard has been pulled off the market. Wolverine boots is now being sued. State of Minnesota sued 3M for a very substantial amount last year and one of these compounds were thought to be in our compounds. They were thought to not react with anything truly. And they’re great when you’ve got waterproof, any type of waterproof coating or nonstick coating and you can think of the clothes that you have, the coatings you’ve had on your furniture to try to protect them from your kids or your spouse from spilling things on them. So over and over again, these things have been used and we encounter them every single day.

The problems are very substantial with these systems. They are contaminating the water systems. People have found them in great lakes fish, which we eat, and they find them in the water supply. We can be exposed to them in many different ways.

One of the challenges when I began to look at this was that there was not really a terrific molecular level understanding of what was going on. I’ve been to meetings where there’s a lot of people who are trying to filter PFAS waste from the water supplies in this state. I’ve been to conferences where they’re trying to figure out how do we deal with PFAS that is showing up in our waste management.  For our waste management folks, what do we do about this? There’s so much that is not known about these compounds. It is actually quite remarkable. One of the things companies have done is said that no longer do we need to, we’re not going to use PFAS, we’re going to be using something else. We’re going to create pans that are PFOA free, which means basically you don’t have the long-chain PFAS systems.

They replaced them with short-chain ones. One of the most common ones is Gen X. Okay, so we’ve done some studies and the problem with these is that they can lead to basically cancer development issues, thyroid issues, oxidative stress, lots of different types of problems.

The challenge here is we began to look at what happens with some of these replacement compounds over here. Are they as toxic as some of these other compounds? And the answer to that is mighty close.

These are the systems that people are using around the globe as replacement compounds. And some countries have not gone to the point where they’re using replacement compounds. I don’t know if there’s an answer. We’ve got 4,000 compounds to study. I’ve got a whole army of students and postdocs now working on this because these are things that we need solutions for and we need solutions for quickly. We don’t know how to deal with all of these. We don’t know, how truly are there ways to mitigate it? What are the best ways to mitigate it?  This is something that we are working quite hard on now from both the quantum mechanical methods as well as some of our drug design approaches.

Something else we’ve worked on through the years is CO2. This is my last story here. We’ve looked a lot at CO2 in terms of our greenhouse gas and we know that there are some potential implications in terms of climate change. We want to think about ways to sequester it, to utilize it. Through the years we’ve looked at a lot of different things based upon we were able to really use some of the strategies we’ve used for drug design, studying proteins. We’ve used them to really look at CO2 binding sites and proteins. One of the things we did was we took a look at RuBisCO. RuBisCO is basically a type of a plant of protein where basically it’s really estimated to be the most abundant protein on earth. And what’s great about it is it can basically absorb some of the CO2, basically fixes some of the CO2, but it really can’t keep up with the amount of CO2 that is created worldwide.

One of the things we wanted to do was try to understand how does RuBisCo actually, you know, how does it handle CO2? How does CO2 go into the plant protein? How does it come out? And so we used a lot of different drug design approaches to study this. And then from that we could use a pharmaco four approach, which is basically a drug design approach to try to look at other pockets and other types of proteins to see what other types of proteins can we genetically engineer proteins that might be useful in terms of, uh, absorbing CO2. We’ve done work in that area. We’ve looked at many different strategies to try to absorb CO2 metal organic frameworks. We’ve done a lot of looking at homogeneous, heterogeneous, ketalysis, looking at different strategies for CO2.

One of the stories I want to tell, especially the junior faculty and the students here, what I want to share is that, you know, often you aim for a great journal when you’re trying to submit a papers, submit some research we are really excited about.  We had submitted some of this work to the journal of American Chemical Society. We were very disheartened because two weeks after submitting we got a note, the editor that said this work is really not a broad enough interest for the general community chemistry community. I said, okay, great. So we submitted it to energy and fuels. We were very happy because then it was picked up by the American Chemical Society press pack. They pick out four or five articles every week or a couple of weeks that they send to the press. So then we had interviews from a number of different organizations. The New York Times was included in that. I was so excited, because it’s quantum chemistry things that really don’t happen too often. It went to the New York Times and it was picked up by about 200 different media outlets. I had a lot of fun because then the editor of the journal who had rejected the paper was telling me his tales of woe of how he had a paper sitting with nature chemistry. And he said, sometimes they won’t even really look at the paper and they reject it because it’s not broad enough interest. And I said, I have a great story for you.

I told him this is a missed opportunity. And he said, okay. So anyways, we had been colleagues for years and we published together so it was fine. But what was so funny about this was the fact that also I had companies calling us saying, okay, so what do we need to put on their smokestacks of chimneys from our factory to capture the CO2? And I thought, I’m so far removed from any kind of application at that point in my career. I thought, oh, great question. I said, give us a while. And I never really thought I would be doing anything with the power plant.

Well here at MSU I was asked to join a project with Wei Liao in agricultural engineering and Mitch Smith and we are working with the MSU power plant and a clean energy company and we are truly pulling it off. I’m watching them do this, pulling off the smoke, coming off the MSU power plant chimney and our job is to look, basically we’re trying to pull it off, see what kind of a CO2, how much, see how much CO2 can be absorbed and basically what I call an amino acid sludge. So our part is trying to figure out what’s the best mixture of the sludge. But I never thought I would be doing anything with a power plant. And so just being at MSU is opening up all kinds of amazing doors. I never thought it would be open doing small molecule quantum chemistry and now just working on such a range of projects and with a really great team of students. And post-docs. Can you guys raise your hands?

Thanks. [applause]

I must say, when I was talking about the quantum mechanical part, I neglected to mention Lucas Abersold and Timothy Mellon who are doing an amazing job on that. And Brad Welsh also has joined them, so thank you. Thank you for all your work. And you know, I also want to acknowledge you. I hope I acknowledged everyone, so, okay. All right.

And certainly I want to acknowledge support through lots of different funding agencies and national laboratories through the years. And thank you so much. I really appreciate the opportunity to be at MSU. I thank the Provost Office for the opportunity for the Hannah professorship and I look forward to many, many more years at MSU.

So thank you.


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