I started studying chemistry at university in 2002. In 2011 I finished my PhD course. During that time I have attended countless symposia, conferences, workshops and special lectures with invited speakers. The by far most impressive talk that I witnessed was given by the Costa Rican scientist Samuel Stupp (Professor at Northwestern University in Chicago). It was in 2007 at an event at CenTech Münster (Germany) where he gave the first presentation of the day and left everyone stunned. The poor presenter after him started his talk with the sentence “After Prof. Stupp’s talk, we can pack our things and go home. Everything has been said!”. What makes his research so impressive? Why do people bet that he will be awarded a Nobel prize someday?
Prof. Stubb combines profound knowledge and expertise from various fields. Having educational background in chemistry (Bachelor degree from UCLA, PhD from Northwestern University), he started his academic career on an appointment in material science and engineering (with chemistry and bioengineering) at UIUC. After returning to Northwestern University as a Board of Trustees Professor of Material Science, Chemistry and Medicine, he was appointed the director of the newly formed Institute for BioNanotechnology in Medicine. So, basically, he covers the three usually distinct fields of chemistry (as “basic research”), engineering (as “applied science”) and medicine.
His major contribution to scientific knowledge in biomedicine is the discovery of peptide amphiphiles that have the ability to self-assemble into nanoscale filaments. When these molecules are designed well – and this is the most impressive skill of Prof. Stupp – these filaments can mimic components of the extracellular matrix in living organisms, for example wire-like structures that allow the regeneration of nerve transduction in the neck after accident-caused paraplegia.
The molecules that self-assemble into these rod structures need to fulfil several conditions. The outside of the filament has to be bioactive so that the organism “accepts” it. The other end of the molecule has to be designed in a way that it allows desired functionalities like conductivity or mechanical stability. Here it becomes obvious why it requires in-depth understanding of chemistry, engineering AND medicine! Stupp’s amphiphiles revolutionised the field of regenerative medicine. They enable bone and cartilage regeneration, angiogenesis for ischemia or peripheral artery disease, therapies for neurodegenerative diseases, spinal cord injuries, diabetes, and many others that have been labelled “untreatable” before. See more details in this video:
Information about his research and his group at Northwestern can be found here.
By the time that I met him, I was wondering about the paradigms of “expertise”, how they changed and what would be the best way. In the early days of science, the most famous and most respected “scientists” were generalists. Think of Galileo or Da Vinci, who both had a wide spectrum of interests and were able to see the whole picture. Then, over the course of the centuries, more and more knowledge has been elaborated, more and more specific disciplines with distinct characteristic methodologies and terminology (microworlds) came up, and more and more highly specialised scientists with profound knowledge in very narrow confinements entered the scene. The new paradigm was collaborative interdisciplinarity (we might call it team work). It was regarded as inevitable that scientists know much about little, so that the larger picture can only be generated when these experts contribute their respective pieces of the puzzle to a collective endeavour. However, Samuel Stupp is different. I have the impression that his ground-breaking achievements are only possible because there is one guy that combines multiple disciplines to one innovative and creative cognitive process. He is not a narrowly confined specialist, but also not a generalist in the classical sense, but a multi-specialised visionary! I am quite sure that not many people on this planet have the intellectual and cognitive capacity to acquire this skill. Therefore, quite certainly, Prof. Stupp will have his place in history!