AJ Boydston, Associate Professor of Chemistry & Yamamoto Family Professor of Chemistry

On August 1, chemist AJ Boydston, joins the University of Wisconsin-Madison Department of Chemistry. He brings research scientist Dr. Chang-Uk Lee and students Johanna Schwartz and Brock Lynde with him from the University of Washington, as part of his initial lab group.

Boydston received his BS in 2001 and MS in 2002 from the University of Oregon and his Ph.D. in 2007 from the University of Texas. He held a postdoctoral position at the California Institute of Technology.

He and his research group work primarily on organic and polymer chemistry.

Why did you choose the University of Wisconsin-Madison?

It was clear that the University has a commitment to excellence. This is true in all aspects of their identity, teaching, research, outreach, mentorship, and citizenship. It’s not surprising to me that so many departments earn high rankings. The students, staff, and faculty push hard and support one another. I was eager to become part of that. There were also several examples of interdisciplinary, collaborative research across campus. That’s exciting to me because I think some of the best innovations happen at the interface of traditional areas. Additionally, students will be better prepared to take on new challenges when they’ve had to broaden their thinking during training.

Where did you work last and what made that position interesting?

I have been at the University of Washington since 2010. I truly loved my time there. The research environment is highly collaborative and supportive. Programs can grow as fast and as broad as you can imagine them, and when it’s time to do the hard work you’re in good company.

What’s the focus of your research and what it could mean for the advancement of science or to the general public?

Our research falls under a broad umbrella of stimuli-responsive materials. We discover, develop, and implement tools across lengths scales from molecular (e.g., chemical synthesis) to macroscopic (e.g., 3D printed multi-material devices). Our work provides new fundamental knowledge about how molecular structure impacts materials properties, and unlocks avenues to new materials capabilities. I hope that someday our research can be used to enable societal advances such as personalized 3D printed medical devices, high toughness lightweight vehicles, self-repairing plastics, and safer platforms for drug delivery.

Tell us about your background. What made you pursue science and research? How has your experience shaped your research goals?

I fell in love with organic chemistry as an undergraduate. Prior to that, I really didn’t have any significant familiarity with chemistry. My undergraduate experience at the University of Oregon really changed my life. It helped me uncover my obsession for problem-solving and I was inspired by the creative license that organic chemistry offered. I decided to go into research once I saw my undergraduate research advisor, Prof. Mike Haley, running his lab and helping PhD students mature into scientific leaders. I wanted that. Then, I had other great mentors and role models, like Prof. Chris Bielawski, Prof. Grant Willson, and Prof. Bob Grubbs, who challenged and encouraged me along the way. Across each of my past advisors, I was fascinated by their ability to envision function, design molecular scaffolds to access that function, and then test hypotheses associated with their designs. It really impressed upon me the excitement of spanning chemical synthesis and applied research.

What drives your desire to teach? Tell us about your teaching philosophy and why you believe educating students is important?

I’ve taught a range of classes within the organic subfield of chemistry. I wanted to teach since I was an undergrad. My instructors and professors there were so enthusiastic about the topics and made great efforts to help students connect with the material. When I teach my classes, I try to emphasize the importance of the field and teach students how experts think about chemistry. My hope is that they come away with an appreciation, confidence, and sharpened critical thinking skills that they can apply to new challenges, even outside of chemistry. I’ve made it a point to try to engage my students despite large class sizes. It’s rewarding to me when I get to personalize the learning experience; that’s when I feel I actually get to teach someone.

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

In both the lab and classroom, students should expect to feel welcomed and appreciated. I strive to have a diverse learning environment. This means we have to be willing to learn from people in different ways, and patient with those trying to learn from us. In my research lab, we want to be intense, supportive, and professional with our approach to research. There will be many learning experiences, otherwise it wouldn’t be research. Students should receive (and give) transparent expectations, criticism, and celebration. Once we start the journey toward a PhD together, the goal is to finish it. In my classroom, I want students to take ownership over their experiences. This means being willing to have open dialogue about what they need, what is working, and what they need to adapt to succeed. Those conversations should go both ways.

Tell us something interesting about yourself you’d like your students to know.

I doubt myself often. I get very anxious about many things related to my family, career, teaching, mentoring, and scientific abilities. When I bring this up with students, they often seem surprised. So, I try to normalize the fact that we are all human and the spectrum of mental wellness at any given time is pretty broad. I’ve sought and received a lot of help along the way to be able to do what I needed to in order to have the successes I wanted. I believe in others when they work hard to do the same. I hope when a student joins my research program or enrolls in my class, they don’t think I expect them to be the first, only, and last “perfect” student to exist.

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