David Emerson is a Chemical Engineering Ph.D. Candidate at MIT. He is currently researching the metabolic engineering of autotrophic bacteria for the production of biofuels and value-added chemicals from gasses.
Q: What kind of science do you do and what got you into your field?
As a high school student, I was very good at math, yet more interested in chemistry and biology. Since I always found math to be somewhat boring, I chose Chemical Engineering – I could use math as a tool to study and understand natural science. I made the transition to biochemical engineering when I realized most of the ChemE basics (distillation columns, reactor design, etc.) were well known. On the other hand, biology and its use in engineering was just starting to blossom. I saw opportunities for discoveries and wanted to move in that direction.
Q: What do you wish people knew or understood about your work/field?
Metabolic engineering has a large role to play in the future (beyond medicine), for the production of renewable chemicals. The industry has stuttered recently since ‘biofuels’ never really lived up to the public’s grand expectations. Given time and research, there is a lot of value left to be discovered in our field. We just need to invest in it.
Q: Who is a scientist you admire?
Carl Sagan and Bill Nye – the way they bring passion, energy, and understanding to science is remarkable; they make it accessible to everyone. I would have never thought astrophysics would be enrapturing, until I heard Sagan speak. We scientists should follow their lead and engage the public, especially on key divisive issues (vaccines, GMOs, etc).
Q: What is your least favorite part of your job?
Often I think to myself – a machine could do a lot of my work. Not the thinking and hypothesizing, but the legwork of pipetting and data acquisition etc.
A lot of my work is moving small quantities of clear liquid into other small quantities of clear liquid. This type of work can often feel very insubstantial, and you can easily lose track of which sample was next (truly a perfect job for robots). Planning the experiments and analyzing the data is when we have the most fun.
Q: Can you tell us about a recent or memorable “aha” moment you had - one that made you feel like all of your work was worth it?
My current project is to get organism A to eat 2 different chemicals at the same time. Literature showed that organism A couldn’t do that though under different conditions (and some recent data corroborates this).
Due to a variety of reasons, we decided to switch to organism B, which we expected to have the same issue. But my first experiment showed that the problem wasn’t there at all! So instead of engineering the organism to do what I want, I’m figuring out why they do it in the first place.