Scientist affirms the power of serendipity and human curiosity in research

Dr. Scott Hartley and three graduate students work with equipment in Hartley biochemistry lab.

Dr. Scott Hartley (in suit jacket) received an NSF grant to study the tertiary structure of ortho-phenylenes. Also pictured, from back to front, are graduate students Lasith Kariyawasam, Zach Kinney, and Gopi Nath Vemuri.

In a June 2015 post on the White House blog, Associate Director for Science at the White House Office of Science and Technology Jo Handelsman wrote, “One of the hallmarks of science is that the path to knowledge is often indirect, and that in addition to rigorous investigation, discovery is often shaped by serendipity [and] human curiosity.” That’s certainly true for Miami University professor of chemistry and biochemistry Scott Hartley. His curiosity turned an early-career failure into a new line of research.

When he first came to Miami University, Hartley and his colleagues were working with a class of molecules called ortho-phenylenes as precursors to new molecules that could be used in nanomaterials. But no matter what they tried they couldn’t make it work. Meanwhile, they had become intrigued by an unusual behavior they had observed in the ortho-phenylenes themselves: they fold into helices, or three-dimensional corkscrew-shaped structures.

ortho-Phenylenes are not unique in their folding; Hartley says there are many classes of so-called foldamers, and that, like ortho-phenylenes, many of them fold into helices.

“When nature wants to produce very complicated, large molecules,” Hartley says, “it does that by essentially taking a string and folding it into a complicated shape as a way of generating complexity while minimizing how difficult it is to chemically construct the molecules. It’s like origami.”

The unusual behavior Hartley and his colleagues observed was not the folding itself, but how slowly ortho-phenylenes do it, compared to other foldamers. Just like slow-motion video replays allow athletic officials to see more accurately what happened on the field or the court, the relatively slow-motion folding that occurs in ortho-phenylenes allows Hartley to see more accurately what happens during molecular folding.

“We just stumbled into this really useful system that turns out – through no clever design – to have some really unique features that we can exploit,” he says, echoing Handelsman’s sentiment about the serendipity of discovery. “The project sort of evolved on its own and we just sort went where it took us.”

Where the project ultimately took Hartley is to an investigation of the tertiary structure of ortho-phenylenes. With the support of a $430,000 grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF), Hartley is currently working to figure out how to manipulate the position of foldamer molecules relative to each other in space. This, he says, is the key to building larger, more complex molecules that could one day be used to develop new catalysts or new molecular-recognition sensors.

The work is time-consuming. Hartley says there is a lot of organic synthesis required to create the systems he’s working on and a lot of characterization – often in the form of nuclear magnetic spectroscopy – that goes into understanding the behavior of these molecules. It’s all part of the “rigorous investigation” Handelsman alluded to in her blog post, and Hartley is grateful for the undergraduate and graduate students who help him accomplish it.

“The undergrads are really an important part of the project,” he says. “They work really closely with the graduate students to do a lot of that work. The graduate students are intimately involved in their training, standing next to them in the lab and answering their questions.”

It’s possible some of those questions might be about things that don’t necessarily seem relevant to the current project. But Hartley would probably be the first to point out the potential those questions hold.

“If I did anything smart along the way,” this veteran scientist says, “it was recognizing something interesting and deciding just to run with it.”

And to that we say, “Run on, Scott Hartley. Run on.”


Written by Heather Beattey Johnston, Associate Director of Research Communications, Office for the Advancement of Research and Scholarship, Miami University.

Photos by Jeff Sabo, Miami University Photo Services.

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