Zachary Wickens Will Join Department as Assistant Professor in 2018

Zachary Wickens
Zachary Wickens

In summer 2018, Dr. Zachary Wickens will join the UW-Madison Department of Chemistry as an assistant professor of chemistry. He is a National Institutes of Health Ruth L. Kirschstein NRSA Postdoctoral Fellow in the Eric Jacobsen research group at Harvard University. As a postdoctoral fellow, he has focused on developing catalytic enantioselective strategies to activate C–O bonds.

Wickens earned a doctorate from the California Institute of Technology, working with Professor Robert Grubbs to develop catalytic strategies to selectively oxidize alkenes. He holds a bachelor’s degree in chemistry from Macalester College.

As a faculty member in the inorganic and organic chemistry paths, he plans to begin a research program that draws upon his expertise in catalysis, organometallics, synthesis, and mechanistic analysis.

“Zach brings extensive expertise in organometallic chemistry and organocatalysis that will complement the Department’s existing strengths in synthesis and catalysis,” Professor Jennifer Schomaker says. “His exciting ideas to design and study multiple catalysts working in tandem are likely to reveal new catalytic principles useful in the context of organic synthesis and beyond. We’re pleased to welcome him to the Department and look forward to interacting with him and the fantastic students he is likely to attract to Wisconsin.”

Read on to learn about the future Wickens research group, his plans for complementing existing catalysis research in the Department, and his thoughts about his hometown.

What’s the focus of your planned research?

Despite our understanding of the relationship between molecular structure and reactivity, many important chemicals remain completely impractical to access. In order to bridge this gap, I believe that we must uncover general principles by which we can control (and fundamentally alter) the intrinsic reactivity of small molecules. Catalysis is uniquely suited to this task–catalysts can be designed to both create and control chemical reactivity. In particular, research in my group will advance our understanding of how multiple catalysts can work in concert to orchestrate bond forming and breaking events with extraordinary precision. The discoveries made in my group will lead to new chemical transformations and will allow simple precursors to be selectively transformed into valuable products (such as medicines) without an environmental or economic burden.

What most excites you about coming to UW-Madison?

So many things are exciting about coming to UW-Madison! If I had to pick one thing, it would be the opportunity to work with the fantastic students in the graduate and undergraduate programs. The warm and collegial atmosphere among the faculty members doesn’t hurt either.

What can students expect from you in class or in the lab?

My top priority as a teacher and a research mentor is to establish an environment in which students can sincerely enjoy learning chemistry. I believe scientific discovery thrives on a blend of hard work and creativity and that both come naturally when you love what you’re doing. With this in mind, I’ll foster an inclusive and non-judgmental atmosphere and focus on the conceptual foundations required for students to independently solve new problems.

What research groups are you likely to collaborate with, both in the department and across campus?

The UW-Madison faculty–both in chemistry and in other departments–is composed of brilliant scientists and I’d be shocked if many fruitful collaborations don’t naturally surface. Although these opportunities could come from almost anywhere, Professor Kyoung-Shin Choi is an expert in electrocatalysis and we are both interested in integrating electricity into synthetic organic chemistry as an environmentally friendly driving force. Furthermore, Professor Andrew Buller also just joined the department, and I expect a natural synergy between my interest in synthetic catalyst development and his in enzyme bioengineering.

Who is a scientist who has played a role in inspiring your work?

My advisors, Professors Bob Grubbs (Caltech) and Eric Jacobsen (Harvard), both provide me with continuous inspiration. These scientists opened up important avenues of chemical research and, perhaps more impressively, prepared countless scientists for incredibly successful independent careers in industry, academia, and other fields. Both of these professors clearly care tremendously about both their science and their students. I hope to emulate their dedication to blending scientific exploration with education at UW-Madison.

When did you know you wanted to become a scientist?

I hadn’t even considered a career in science until I took organic chemistry as an undergrad. Once I understood the basic concepts, each problem was a fun new puzzle to solve. However, I truly committed to becoming a scientist later that year when I pursued research at the interface of chemistry and applied mathematics with Professor Chad Hidgeon-Topaz at Macalester College. This experience demonstrated that the most important part of being a scientist is working on new ideas. Nothing works (at first)! I found unexpected joy in the open-ended troubleshooting that lies at the heart of scientific inquiry and haven’t looked back since.

What unique strength do you hope to bring to the department?

The department is already exceptionally strong in catalysis, which is my primary research area. I think my greatest strength lies in my approach to research. I pride myself on flexibility and an ability to get to the heart of interesting observations, even if they come from so-called ‘failed’ experiments. Scientifically, in my doctoral and postdoctoral research, I have investigated two fundamentally different strategies for catalyst design. By drawing on these distinct experiences, I anticipate that I will bring a fresh perspective that complements the department’s existing strengths.

Where did you grow up? How has this influenced you?

As it turns out, I am a local Madisonian! Madison is an amazing city that combines the genuine warmth of a small town with the cultural opportunities of a big city. I like to think that growing up in Madison made me equal parts friendly, inquisitive, and socially conscious.

What do you enjoy doing outside of your work?

Outside of chemistry I like eating good food, playing nerdy board games, and biking around town. Madison will be the perfect place to continue to pursue each of these interests.

—Libby Dowdall