Department welcomes Jeff Martell, Assistant Professor

Martell group members
From left: Edward Pimentel, Jeff Martell, and Mario Cribari

Jeff Martell arrived at UW-Madison May 20, from a postdoctoral researcher position with Jeff Long at UC Berkeley’s Miller Institute. His group currently includes two first-year Ph.D. students, Edward Pimentel and Mario Cribari.

Martell received his B.A. in chemistry and mathematics from Northwestern University in 2009 and his Ph.D. in chemistry from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 2015.

He and his research group work primarily on the development of enzyme-mimicking catalysts.

Why did you choose the University of Wisconsin-Madison?

I was impressed that UW-Madison has world-class research and teaching while also boasting a friendly and collegial atmosphere. In the Department of Chemistry specifically, I was struck by the collaborative approach, the emphasis on interdisciplinary research, and the strength in all sub-fields of chemistry. This well-rounded expertise, together with the collegial atmosphere, will be extremely helpful for my group! Our ideas will require us to draw from many different areas of chemistry, so expert advice from our colleagues will be hugely beneficial.

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

I was a Miller Institute postdoctoral researcher at UC Berkeley, hosted in the group of Jeff Long. I worked on a class of materials called metal–organic frameworks, or MOFs. I had a tremendous experience in the Long group, which is full of outstanding researchers with diverse areas of expertise. It was a fantastic opportunity for me to learn inorganic and materials chemistry.

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

My group is focused on creating new catalysts that mimic enzymes. In chemistry and in society overall, we require catalysts for many different purposes. Remarkably, nature has evolved highly efficient enzyme catalysts for many chemical reactions that are important for society. These enzymes operate at room temperature in water, usually with very fast kinetics and high selectivity. However, in many cases, enzymes are too fragile and too difficult to scale up for practical applications. An ongoing challenge for chemists is to create synthetic catalysts that are more robust than enzymes while mimicking their catalytic power. In my group, we will create new catalysts consisting of three-dimensional cavities that mimic the active sites of enzymes. A key aspect of our approach is to synthesize and evaluate large libraries of catalysts with related structures, thus mimicking the process of natural evolution to optimize catalyst activity. The potential applications of our proposed catalysts are very broad, including chemical synthesis, medicine, energy, environmental remediation, and more.

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

In college I was interested in many subjects and considered many different majors. Once I started doing independent chemistry research during my sophomore year, I fell in love with research, and I’ve been doing it ever since. I enjoy tackling difficult problems that require intense focus as well as creativity and a flexible mindset. Research in chemistry is particularly exciting because there is potential for impact in many different areas of society. My research experience to date has spanned multiple sub-fields of chemistry, including organic, biological, inorganic, and materials. This experience informs my goal moving forward: I hope to combine ideas and tools from different areas of chemistry to create new solutions to challenging problems.

If you’re an educator, what drives your desire to teach? Tell us about your teaching philosophy and why you believe educating students is important?

I have been fortunate throughout my career to learn from many great teachers and mentors, who have been indispensable in my scientific development. I feel a sincere desire and obligation to foster the development of younger scientists. My teaching philosophy is to prepare extensively so that I know the subject matter, am aware of the students’ prior knowledge, and have a clear and detailed lecture plan. During the lecture, I believe it’s important to encourage active participation by the students. I also believe it’s critical to seek feedback from the students whenever possible so that I can improve as a teacher.

What can students expect from you in the lab?

I hope to foster a group culture in which we hold ourselves to very high standards of technical skill, productivity, focus, creativity, and integrity. I will push myself and my group members to improve continually in everything we do. At the same time, I believe it’s my responsibility as a mentor to provide coaching, guidance, and support throughout this process. Arguably the most important part of the PhD training is for the students to become confident, independent thinkers, so I will always encourage my students to develop greater independent thinking and creativity. A huge part of my job is to help students prepare for whatever careers they are interested in and to serve as a resource to make them aware of different opportunities. It will also be extremely important for me to foster diversity within the group and to create an environment where everyone feels empowered to voice opinions without fear of reprisal or judgement. Finally, I hope to create an environment where the students feel comfortable giving me feedback. It’s common that graduate students are criticized frequently by the PI, but never get the opportunity to provide suggestions on how the PI can improve. I am committed to seeking feedback from my students so that I can learn and improve as a mentor.

What most excites you about coming to UW–Madison?

I’m thrilled to have the opportunity to work with the outstanding PhD students at UW-Madison. It will be a great opportunity for me to learn from the students and for all of us to learn new science together! I’m excited about building a team of creative researchers who can devise unconventional solutions to challenging problems. I’m also excited about the fantastic colleagues in our department. I’m looking forward to witnessing their discoveries and forging collaborations.