Turning point: Andrew Dove

Curiosity about catalysis leads to biomaterials career.

Andrew Dove was named the 2014 Royal Society of Chemistry Gibson-Fawcett Award winner in May. A chemist at the University of Warwick, UK, Dove describes his circuitous path into research on biodegradable materials for regenerative medicine, which involves replacing or regenerating human tissue.

What area of chemistry first drew you in?

In a word, catalysis — designing inorganic catalysts that boost the efficiency or change the chemical properties of large polymers known as plastics. After working at BP Chemicals in Saltend, UK, during my fourth year of university, I thought I wanted to work on industry-sponsored projects — for example, using these catalysts to make polyethylene, a chemically resistant plastic.

Why did you initially focus on industry?

It was probably my dad's influence. Academia was not on my list of potential careers. But I came to realize that I really enjoyed basic research and wanted to give it a go. I applied for a PhD at Imperial College London, where my adviser offered me a project making polylactide, which is now the most widely used biopolymer around, particularly in biomedical applications. Now that it can be made from corn, rather than from petrochemicals, it is cheaper to use in the face of rising oil prices.

How was your postdoc a turning point?

My wife and I moved to the United States to pursue postdoc positions in a bid to build up our CVs. I was at Stanford University in California for about 15 months working on inorganic catalysis. Then my funding ran out. But my wife still had her postdoc funding to work at IBM, and I was able to get a postdoc contract there too, in the company's Center on Polymer Interfaces and Macromolecular Assemblies, which is funded by the US National Science Foundation. There, I started doing more organic catalysis. I had freedom to do whatever I wanted as long as good, publishable science was the result. It was a breakthrough period because it helped me to believe that I had good ideas and could translate them into interesting projects.

Where did your research go from there?

I should credit the American Chemical Society with my change in direction. The inorganic chemistry and polymer talks in their meetings were always at opposite ends of the conference centre when I attended them in 2003 and 2004 — so I had to choose which I found more interesting, and polymers won. Those meetings proved crucial for helping me to understand where the cutting edge for creating new polymer materials really was at the time. I saw a couple of opportunities. One was to find ways to give biodegradable materials different physical properties and use those materials in high-value applications such as in biomedical devices.

How did you approach your job search?

I applied for jobs probably even before I was ready for them, and found that it really helped me to hone my research proposals. In 2004, I started applying for academic posts. Rather than looking for jobs with 'inorganic' in the advert, I applied for a UK fellowship in nanoscience, and persuaded the university that I had the skills for the job. In 2005, I started my own group at the University of Warwick.

What are you working on at the moment?

I'm working on degradable polymers. One is a hydrogel material that could one day be combined with adult stem cells to make a scaffold able to regenerate a human spinal disc. Once the cells start to grow, the biological material would take over, leaving nothing synthetic in the body.

How do you feel about media observations that Royal Society of Chemistry award winners often become Nobel laureates?

I find it quite amusing. It would be lovely if that happened, but I think the press made a bit of a leap. I don't feel daunted by it because I don't take it seriously.

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Interview by Virginia Gewin

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Royal Society of Chemistry awards page

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Gewin, V. Turning point: Andrew Dove. Nature 514, 525 (2014). https://doi.org/10.1038/nj7523-525a

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