Assistant Professor Zach Wickens arrived at UW—Madison in June 2018. His group, which currently includes postdoctoral researcher Nicholas Cowper and graduate student Oliver Williams, works to discover new ways to control reactions and selectively break apart and reassemble small molecules.
Wickens received his bachelor’s degree at Macalester College in Saint Paul, MN and his Ph.D. at the California Institute of Technology. He was most recently a National Institutes of Health postdoctoral fellow at Harvard University.
WHY DID YOU CHOOSE UW—MADISON?
One of the biggest reasons I decided to come to UW was to work with the caliber of students I knew I’d have the opportunity to interact with, both in the class and in my lab. The institution has a reputation for fostering creative science, and I’ve known many fantastic scientists who received degrees from UW—Madison. Additionally, I was born and raised in Madison, and I knew it was an awesome place to live.
Do you have any big goals for the beginning of your time in the department?
In addition to getting my research off the ground, I am developing a new graduate class aimed at helping new graduate students develop scientific thinking in organic chemistry. I am fascinated by innovation and the way people think about problems. In this class, I have focused more on the thought process necessary to be a successful scientist than on specific content. My goal for the class is to scaffold the development of independence by providing a structured classroom environment to facilitate the transition into a graduate education. In undergraduate education, students learn what humans already know, but in graduate school, they learn to create brand-new knowledge. This distinction requires a significant shift in thinking and can be extremely jarring for many students.
Brilliant young scientists come into our program with pretty different previous experience and knowledge. With this in mind, the first half of the course is about equipping each and every student with the intellectual vocabulary to articulate scientific questions in organic chemistry. The second part of the class puts the students in situations where there might not be any known answer. I teach them how to deal with that situation and how to come up with the questions they’ll need to ask to get to an answer. While my class focuses on problem solving in a specific area of scientific inquiry, my goal is that they can leverage the thought process they learn in my course to answer other scientific questions.
An unexpected, but happy, byproduct of the way I’ve structured this course is that many of the students have started to realize that each of them have different strengths and weaknesses, and by working together with diverse approaches to the same problem, they can come to more satisfying answers. I hope this can have a lasting impact on how students interact with each other in research environments as well.
Can you talk about your research goals?
My research is about developing new reactions and trying to understand how we can take the basic rules of organic chemistry, learned over the last 100 years, and find ways to do things that seem like they should not be possible. The reactions I develop could interface immediately with pharmaceutical research, but I am most interested in trying to discover new strategies that can be broadly exploited to make molecules and can impact the full breadth of fields that rely on the preparation of new molecules. I strive to stay grounded in developing technologies that could have an impact on our lives without focusing on developing new strategies that can only solve one problem. In particular, I’m fascinated by the development of new tools to precisely edit small molecular architectures. To me, the question isn’t just how can we break this bond; it’s how can we take this molecule, which has dozens of similar bonds, and select one, and only one, to break? As a field, we have a lot of work to do in this arena, but progress here could revolutionize the preparation of organic molecules across a wide range of fields deeply rooted in modern technology, such as polymer science and human health.
What is your mentorship philosophy?
My top priority as a research mentor is to establish an environment in which my group can sincerely enjoy learning and exploring 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’m working to foster an inclusive and non-judgmental atmosphere and focus on the conceptual foundations required for students to independently solve new problems in their projects. Overall, I see graduate school as a place to become an independent, creative problem solver, capable of taking on the enormous challenge of discovering something fundamentally new. I want my group members to develop abstract, generalizable problem-solving skills while they are making breakthroughs in their discipline. My role is guiding them through this transition to independence and providing them opportunities to develop the necessary skills to flourish in their chosen long-term career plans.