By Stefanie Pietkiewicz
It is difficult not to crack a chemistry joke when talking about Professors Matt Kanan and Lynette Cegelski, a married couple in the Department of Chemistry who met at Stanford eight years ago.
Kanan and Cegelski recently celebrated an incredible career milestone. This past spring, they both achieved tenure.
“It’s a wonderful feeling,” said Kanan. “It’s sort of a renewal of the opportunity to be here and work in this environment, but the reality is that the job doesn’t get any easier so it is definitely cause for celebration, but not relaxation.”
Cegelski echoed her husband’s thoughts. “It’s a real relief to be out from under the microscope, but I never let [the evaluation process] get to me. I minimized my thoughts about it because I knew I loved what I was doing every single day, and I wouldn’t change a thing.”
The field of chemistry intrigued them because of it offered the chance to tackle some of the world’s most challenging problems head on.
“Most of the pressing problems are chemical problems at the core, so the opportunity to have an impact through research was really appealing for me,” said Kanan.
“I always loved puzzles and patterns and building things, from doing origami to learning Morse code to studying Japanese,” said Cegelski. “If you have a problem-solving mindset, chemistry is very appealing.”
Cegelski’s fascination with puzzle solving is still a critical theme in her lab’s research today.
“We ask questions about how cellular assemblies are built – what are the parts and how do they fit together.” By solving these molecular puzzles, she hopes to better understand the basic chemical principles underlying biology and ultimately to advance human health.
One overwhelming puzzle the two have successfully managed to solve is the notorious “two-body problem,” the dilemma many couples in academia face when searching for jobs together. Due to the shortage of academic positions, partners often have to make the difficult decision to live separately, or one may have to abandon his or her career aspirations.
Since they did not meet until after they had both secured employment at Stanford, “people often refer to our situation as the two-body solution, and just the other day, a faculty member referred to our situation as the two-body dream,” said Cegelski, smiling brightly.
Today they both work in the Department of Chemistry, but they are in different disciplines: Kanan works on catalysis and synthetic chemistry and Cegelski is a Biophysical Chemist.
While being both colleagues and spouses has its fair share of challenges, the pair are grateful because they have a mutual understanding of the responsibilities that come along with holding an academic position.
“On the whole, it is a positive to work together because we both understand the particular stresses that come up. You help one another get through that,” Cegelski explained.
Kanan compares working as a scientist to riding a high-speed rollercoaster, and he is happy to have his wife by his side through the ups and downs. “You can be really high and happy about a new discovery you have made, or really low and frustrated. It’s hard to communicate the nature of those highs and lows to someone who isn’t in the same position,” he said.
The couple, who joined Stanford within months of one another, have been inseparable since meeting one fateful evening at a colleague’s Palo Alto home.
“I was actually involved in the decision to hire Matt, but I won’t say which way my votes went,” Cegelski laughed. “We met at Dick Zare’s house on Matt’s second visit when we were trying to recruit him.”
Several years later, the couple married, and they recently welcomed two children, Bradley, 1 and Jillian, 2.
Both have fond memories of their first visit to Stanford. “I got a sense that there was a real value placed on doing things that are difficult, important and impactful,” said Kanan. “We never search for faculty based on some pre-conceived notion. We just try to find interesting people, and that philosophy really resonated with me.”
Cegelski nodded in agreement. “On my first visit, the interaction with the people, the students, and the enthusiasm surrounding my seminar made for a magical experience. I can still remember that visit so clearly. It’s rare that you have an experience like that.”
Having children has given them a new perspective on the importance of mentorship.
“I view it as a partnership with each student where you lead and guide, but you also have to be cognizant of their future goals and help to keep them excited about what they’re working on during experimental hurdles,” said Cegelski. “Exciting discoveries fuel enthusiasm, so as long as you can encourage that, it’s the best thing you can do, and the lab will move itself forward.”
Kanan and Cegelski have each made some very exciting discoveries in recent years.
Kanan, who first became interested in energy conversion while doing a postdoc at MIT, is currently focused on converting carbon dioxide into a resource for making fuels and chemicals.
His lab recently learned how to create plastic from carbon dioxide and biomass waste. This noteworthy finding could provide an ecofriendly alternative to plastic bottles, products made from petroleum. However, he first needs to resolve how to produce this renewable form of plastic on a much larger scale.
“We are figuring out how to get it out of the lab and into a place where it can be brought to scale, so we are really at the interface of chemistry and chemical engineering,” he said.
While Kanan is tackling challenges in catalysis and reaction development, Cegelski is busy untangling intricate molecular structures using solid-state NMR spectroscopy, a technique she used frequently as a graduate student and postdoc at Washington University in St. Louis.
She believes this technique could be the key to unlocking complex biological systems and understanding how antibiotics fight against bacteria.
“I had hoped and envisioned that we would have some major surprises by using solid state NMR. We would discover things that hadn’t been observed but would be really important for understanding the function of the cell,” she said.
As it turns out, she was right. Using this technology, her lab found that bacteria can produce a chemically modified form of cellulose, the most abundant organic polymer on Earth. “It was a totally unanticipated discovery with a lot of potential implications that we are excited to follow up with,” she said. “This ties into our efforts to understand and interfere with bacterial biofilm formation, but it was so neat to see that there is new underlying fundamental Chemistry to be discovered in systems that have been studied for decades.”
Despite their differing backgrounds and research interests, they admit there is a possibility they will collaborate in the future. For example, Kanan may need to deploy some of the techniques Cegelski’s lab frequently uses to study carbon-based materials.
“It would come from something we aren’t anticipating,” Kanan said. Cegelski continued, “But you never know! And that’s the great thing about science. You just never know.”