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What it’s like to be a chemist

Assistant professor of chemistry Laura Dassama in her lab.

Photograph by L.A. Cicero
Aug 19 2019

In the third in a series on what the lives of Stanford researchers actually look like, chemists Noah Burns, Laura Dassama, Michael Fayer and Hemamala Karunadasa talk about their paths into the field, the joys of making new molecules and the way in which “the central science” pervades our lives.



Michael Fayer surveys the world around him and sees something that most of us do not: chemistry. It’s not that Fayer, a professor of chemistry, sees no value in anything but academic chemistry research. It’s just that when it comes down to it, chemistry has more to do with ordinary human experience than any other field. To Fayer, everything from color to nutrition to the greenhouse effect is, first and foremost, chemistry.

“Chemistry just permeates our lives,” he said.

He is not alone in this view. For Noah Burns, it is the basis of life. For Laura Dassama, it is the path to advances in health. And for Hemamala Karunadasa, chemistry is the foundation of civilizations. Chemists call their discipline “the central science” for a reason, because it touches everything in our daily lives. Here, Fayer, Burns, Dassama and Karunadasa share how they got into chemistry, the joys and frustrations of their academic lives and what chemistry, the central science, means to them.

Fayer is the David Mulvane Ehrsam and Edward Curtis Franklin Professor in Chemistry. Burns is an assistant professor of chemistry and a member of Stanford ChEM-H. Dassama is an assistant professor of chemistry and an Institute Scholar of ChEM-H. Karunadasa is an assistant professor of chemistry and a Center Fellow of the Precourt Institute for Energy.


Institute Scholar Laura Dassama's Full Interview

Dassama works at the boundaries between chemistry and biology, and she is among the newest members of the faculty – she’s been on campus for just under a year. Right now, her lab comprises just herself, four undergrads and a postdoc. In addition to setting the direction of the lab, she still does many of its experiments as well as the work of lab manager – so far, there’s no one else to do it. Here, Dassama describes what it means to her to think like a chemist, why she settled on chemistry after assuming she’d become a physician and how running a new lab is a little like running a small business.

“Broadly, my lab is interested in using tools of chemistry to understand things in biology. More specifically, we’re interested in problems related to drug resistance. And so, we have projects that include identifying key players in drug resistance and attempting to understand how those work so that we can be able to target them specifically.

“It has been interesting, getting used to this new role. Prior to starting my lab, there was always someone else who ran the labs I had worked in, and I was only focused on my projects, which were a small part of the lab’s focus. Now here, not only am I in charge of the lab’s focus and making sure everyone’s science is running smoothly, I am also recruiting and managing people. Running a lab is very much like running a small business. One has to think about the finances, to make sure everything and everyone is healthy, that our ideas are good and that we are investing time and energy in the right projects.

“Growing up, I had a curiosity about diseases and why people got sick and how medications that were applied helped to make people feel better. And so at the time, it may still be the case where I grew up, in Liberia, if you were interested in science and math and you happened to be good at it, your only career option was to become a physician. And so I presumed that that’s what I would do and everyone presumed that’s what I would do.

“It was not until I went to college and described to some of my professors what I actually wanted to do that I realized that I could have a career in research. I realized that I could go to the lab and discover the molecular bases for diseases and the impact of medications. I had no idea prior to that that research was a viable and respectable career. So, at 20 years old, I went into the lab and discovered that it was exactly what I wanted to do.

“My mother is a nurse and my father a lawyer, and they always presumed I would be a physician. When I told them that I was planning to go to graduate school, they had no idea what that meant. It was a bit scary because they were worried that they would have to support me – financially – the rest of my life.

“Chemistry – I was interested in human health problems, but I really wanted to understand the nitty-gritty details, and chemistry gave me satisfaction because it was focused on molecular-level understanding of these very complex problems and systems, and I thought, ‘That’s what I need to be doing.’

“Even though I never officially got a degree in chemistry – my bachelor’s is in biochemistry because I wanted to maintain my interest in biological applications – I worked in a chemistry lab. Most of the tools I use are tools from chemistry and physics, and so even though none of my degrees are in chemistry, my work is chemistry, and I do think like a chemist. To me, it is as if I see the world in terms of its molecules. I am fascinated by the molecular makeup of things. When I think of a human disease, I do not think of only the physiological description of the disease. I always think of what drives it. I am curious about the molecules that are involved and how they work. Perhaps if we identified them and understood how they work, we could alter their workings.”