Dr. Sean Elliott

The Elliott group, located in Boston, MA, "combines interests in bioinorganic chemistry, mechanistic enzymology, electrochemistry and environmental microbiology to understand how biological macromolecules undergo redox transformations."

In other words (also Sean's words), working toward understanding how nature manipulates electrons to achieve the chemistry of the world around us. It's difficult to appreciate how fundamental that principle is to our everyday lives and general existence of every single thing around us. Luckily, we have people like Sean piecing together the redox story. A former English major, Sean's got a way of describing most everything poetically, but especially his work (check out his response to my question about tips for approaching grant writing). Below, Sean tells us about his tenure at Oxford as a post-doc, finding the good in Twitter (@Prof_SJE), and why YOU should care about redox chemistry.

And yes, the Elliott Group has been "bringing the electron back since 2002." 

The following interview took place on April 12, 2016.

INTERVIEWER

Where did you grow up?

 

ELLIOTT

I was born in Longview, WA, but my family moved around a couple time due to my         Dad’s job.  So we landed in Tucson, AZ as I was about to enter the 5th grade, and             that’s the place that I think of us as home. It’s where I got into low-grade trouble,             and high-school drama that marks growing up.

INTERVIEWER

On your website, it’s stated that the objective of your research is to understand the         ways in which life makes use of energy by engaging in electron transfer reactions.         So, the movement of electrons, why should people care about that?

ELLIOTT

Have an iPhone? Or, do you want to go see the Great Barrier Reef before it’s                   irreparably damaged? Or, do you know anyone that is getting older, and facing               challenges of aging?

I answer yes to all of these questions, and I see all of these things as related

kind of chemistry: redox reactions. Energy is manipulated, captured, harnessed and       hopefully coupled to reactions that are useful.  So in my group, we think a lot about how nature engages in redox chemistry – how biological things (namely, proteins and enzymes) get oxidized and reduced, and how they couple these redox transformations to chemical reactions.

INTERVIEWER

Can you explain, in a few sentences, exactly what it is your lab is trying to accomplish?

ELLIOTT

We work on a bunch of different kinds of problems in redox enzymology – meaning, the study of how redox active enzymes do the kind of chemistry that they do. At times, we are focused on trying to understand the diversity of what kind of redox transformations exist in the biological world around us, and at times we are looking down at the level of one specific enzyme which may work through a bunch of possible processes. And our goal is to understand how that enzyme works, so that we can understand the process at the level of molecules, but also at the level of organisms. Much of what we do involves following the electrons, we use electrochemistry as a tool, by which we can monitor how current flows through a redox-active enzyme, and use that current to tell us that the enzyme of interest is alive and kicking. And that method, following the electrons, provides us with a truly unique insight into how that molecular device operates. How and why it does the kind of redox chemistry it does.

 

INTERVIEWER

      What’s your favorite book or books or your favorite book at a particular age? I know this is a stupid question, but I think it’s an important one, mostly because it interests me.

ELLIOTT

So many books! I was an English major in college, which doesn’t really matter, but it does mean that I used to read a lot of fiction, and that I still have opinions about books. Really, the most telling thing that came out of my degree as an English major was a desire to “listen for the voices that you cannot hear”, an aphorism from one of my more memorable professors.

Back in college, and into grad school, I ran smack dab into a grouping of authors

that were working at the edges and the interstices of ‘traditional’ fantasy literature and being a big fan of Tolkien and Lewis, that resonated with me. In this interstitial or mashed-up evolution, the typical tropes of the genre world might touch upon other mythic traditions, arts, folklore, and melodramas of manners. At that time, those books and authors were incredibly important to me, as they provided a different point of view to my world that was increasingly focused on science. As they bent the rules and boundaries of genres of fiction, I knew that my place in science was to also try to similarly blend the lines between the traditional and the in-between. So:  Swordspoint by Ellen Kushner, the Bordertown Series, edited by Terri Windling, Midori Snyder’s The Flight of Michael McBride, Emma Bull’s War of the Oaks, and Charles de Lint’s Memory and Dream – all were incredibly important to me.  

So in more recent years, Susanna Clarke’s, Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, 

Greg van Eekhout’s, California Bones, and Elizabeth Hand’s, Wylding Hall, are all             mind-blowing in how they are not just one thing. I like things that are not just one thing.

 

INTERVIEWER

Do you have any favorite science books?

 

ELLIOTT

I had a copy of Lewis Thomas’, Lives of a Cell, that was pretty beat-up from many readings. And right now I’ve cracked open, Lab Girl, by Hope Jahren – it’s whip-cracking good.

 

INTERVIEWER

You’re taking a molecular approach to studying complex biological systems. The very notion of this, due to the scale and dimension in which the work takes place, always makes my head spin. Physics goes even deeper and astrophysics goes much, much farther. So why isn’t science the most popular subject ever?

 

ELLIOTT

I wish I had an answer and antidote for this one. I think part of the answer is that           science is often taught as a series of things to be memorized, and not as a process to be followed, or a set of tools to allow you to ask questions. And really, science is about the perspective and questions, and the facts and observables are just some of the window-dressing.  Teaching science is challenging, particularly connecting the dots between the many different flavors of science.

I do think part of the answer is that some of science is just hard. Hard in a way

that some people will never be enthusiastic about. And I don’t mean the quantitative nature of science. But that it’s hard to think about, and dedicate your life to worrying over, objects that cannot be seen with the naked eye. That’s hard. And working for years on an idea, or an intellectual model described by equations or an abstract scheme to show function and reactivity. That’s hard too. 

But everything is hard. I couldn’t be a banker. I couldn’t wrap my brain around

the global economy. I couldn’t be selfless enough to be a hospice nurse.

 

INTERVIEWER

Your graduate work was performed in Sunney I. Chen’s lab at Caltech. I read one of       his papers on his introduction to the world of membrane proteins, which was                 autobiographical and spanned his early days in San Francisco to his current work         and everything in between. He sounds like an interesting guy. What’d you work on       in his lab?

 

ELLIOTT

In his lab, I worked on a membrane bound enzyme called “particulate methane               monooxygenase”. At that point in time, it was appreciated that ‘pMMO’ was incredibly important for global microbial cycling of methane (found in micro-organisms that live everywhere, that will eat methane like we might chow down on pizza). Yet, essentially nothing was known about it’s shape, it’s composition or how it could selectively oxidize methane and use the resultant energy to allow a microorganism to thrive. So…I was basically given a very hard problem, and told GO! Anything that we learned was new.

It was daunting, exhilarating, and very much like walking over a crevasse on tightrope, while juggling chainsaws that been dipped in acid, while others are watching simultaneously cheering and jeering at you – and there was no tightrope.

Fun times! Seriously though, it was the kind of problem where every step forward,

however small, was something new and exciting. And there’s nothing more fun than that.

 

INTERVIEWER

So, your graduate work at Cal Tech was followed by a post-doctoral fellowship at Oxford. How does the scientific atmosphere/environment of England compare to America?

 

ELLIOTT

Hey now – it’s Caltech. That’s one of the things you learn before they even let you           show up. Caltech. One word. One capital. Again, not what you might expect….

Anyway, doing science in the UK was very enlightening. In the UK, as in Europe at

large, there is a better sense of divide between work and personal life. In the UK, I would get to my lab by 7:30 or 8, and that was viewed as pretty early. People would collectively take breaks for coffee and tea – it was a great time to know you could find people and to have space to discuss, to think, to share. People would leave close to 5 or 6 – this was not really how things worked at Caltech.  And yet, when folks at Oxford were at work – they were working. Full bore.  I do think that in America we have a tremendous culture of being accessible and ‘working’ all the time, but without much careful thought about how hours of connectivity do not necessarily equal productivity.

INTERVIEWER

What sparked the interest in your particular brand of research and what about it and the projects you work on has maintained it?

ELLIOTT

I very much believe that understanding how redox enzymes work is incredibly important: they are the machines at the heart of the energy manipulating reactions     in the world around us, and can provide inspiration and insight into the efforts of       chemists to make useful things. As such, the increasing realization that the environment in which we live is changing for the worse inspires me. We have a             moral obligation to help, to use our science to do good.

How I got there is another matter:  when in grad school, my field of “bioinorganic

chemistry” was entirely obsessed with how enzyme active site engaged in “oxygen activation” – how the oxygen we breathe could be used by many enzymes to be the oxidant responsible for functionalizing molecules selectively.  Once again, those kind of reactions are redox reactions. To have an enzyme that can do that kind of chemistry, electrons are also needed to have a complete catalytic cycle. And so, it dawned on me that everyone in the room was ignoring a big part of the problem, the part where electrons flowed back into or out of the site of catalysis. That was the voice that needed to be heard, that no one else seemed to be listening to … and so I decided I needed to focus on that. And that drew me to work with Fraser Armstrong at Oxford, whose group was developing the kind of electrochemical tools that report on how enzymes work, as the electrons flow.

 

INTERVIEWER

At this point in your career, what accomplishment or discovery are you most proud of?

ELLIOTT

Like any parent, I love all my children.

But, most recently, we have published a very exciting paper about how nature

makes use of iron-sulfur clusters to do radical-based chemistry in a very, very large       enzyme family. Here, we show that the iron-sulfur clusters that are used to move           electrons in this case are very low in redox potential, much lower than has been           thought capable. And our work here helps illustrate how the very large family of enzymes operates. But mostly I am proud of this particular discovery, as I thought the whole project may never work, and my student proved me delightfully incorrect. I love it when that happens.

On another note, I am just very proud of how my crew and I have managed to keep

going over the past five years, which have been notoriously hard on science in terms of grant funding. I routinely use the metaphor of my lab trying to keep going like the crew of Serenity on the TV show “Firefly” – we just want to keep moving, keep flying, keep out running those that would want to put us down. And we all need each other in a good research group, as we all add something to the mix of experience and skills. And science moves, or we all end up in space, out of gas.

 

INTERVIEWER

Who and what inspired you as an early scientist?

 

ELLIOTT

My parents, for their undeniable humility and work-ethic. I was raised Catholic, so         priests and educators I saw that emphasized the social-justice part of Catholicism, were inspiring to me.

I had a bunch of great teachers in elementary school who just encouraged me to be

curious about the world. And they stressed that I had a voice, whether that was a science voice or a writing voice or a plumber voice. It was a good voice.

 

INTERVIEWER

Do you pay much attention to scientific journalism? Do you think science is reported effectively in this country?

 

ELLIOTT

I don’t pay as much attention as I’d like. I think that Big Science stories are reported well. I do feel like there is a missing piece, though, in terms of connecting the science behind modern new stories (say, Flint, Michigan water crisis) to the idea of science literacy.

 

INTERVIEWER

Taking a look at the national budget, say science is involved in a primary against all the other sectors for discretionary spending dollars. What is science’s motto and running platform?

 

ELLIOTT

Science: making your world a better place to live and breathe.

 

INTERVIEWER

What is or will be the biggest chemical/redox breakthrough in your time?

 

ELLIOTT

For redox chemistry:  sunlight to jet-fuel, at a commercially viable scale. (I hope.) Or: successfully dealing with antibiotic resistance in infectious disease. (Again, I hope. And so should you.)

 

INTERVIEWER

You are a prolific tweeter, at least as far as scientists go. Or maybe not, I guess I don’t know. Are you a proponent of social media?

 

ELLIOTT

Proponent might be a strong word. I don’t think it’s a "must do" for anyone at all. Please, I tell my colleagues, Be a luddite. Live in a cave. Eat lichen. Go on.

And yet, it’s nice being in the light of a campfire, trading stories with people that

you know well or not-so-well. And so I do prefer to make some time to be there. Twitter is a very random place. When it works, it provides me a chance to ask questions of others, to learn about work that I wouldn’t have done so otherwise, and to try to encourage and support people that are junior to me in their careers.  And, Twitter seems to be something that you can hop on or hop-off of with relative else. Twitter can also be of tremendous help if you feel you need to hide your identity, but use it to get professional advice/perspective. Many of the people I follow I do not know, nor do I even know who they are. I chose to join Twitter just as myself, and to use it to connect with those who are interested in sharing ideas and experience. And mostly I find people there trying to promote ideas, and to help each other make it to the next goal of professional and life success.

I tweet about science, and about the ‘work-life’ balance that we all supposedly crave.

I tweet about my attempts to get back into physical shape as a 44 year old man. And I try to use Twitter as just another tool to learn and to share.

 

INTERVIEWER

What’s your approach to grant writing? In my very, very limited experience, it seems like some principal investigators really enjoy the writing element of the job, while others loathe it.

 

ELLIOTT

Grant writing is one of the necessary tasks of a practicing academic scientist’s job.       There’s no way around it, and I can see why some loathe it, but there is also no other exercise that compels you to think carefully about your science.

Personally, I really enjoy grant writing, when I have the time and latitude to make

sure that everything that is done is perfect, and my best ideas and work are being put forward.  Ideally, grant writing makes you make the best argument you can for not just how you are going to do some set of experiments, but why? Why those particular experiments, and why on that particular system or object of inquiry? And Why should that be done, now, with the tools that are available to you? And when you ask yourself those hard-edged, Why?-driven questions, you can truly clarify your thoughts, and  specify the parts of a problem that are the most compelling. Often I find that after writing a grant, I really do understand the fundamental science better than when I started.

The reality, of course, is nothing like that – you are trying to complete this feat of

intellectual development (which is topped off by a bureaucratic hydra that must be tamed as well) and reality asserts itself in the form of other tasks that steal your time and focus. So, working on the grant itself can be fantastically stressful. And every grant, every story, every project differs from each other – no one can tell you how to write the specific grant that you are writing, because no one has written that specific grant yet. And when I finish one, all I know is that I have some skills about composing the science that may apply to the next project – but maybe they won’t.

Many skills you develop in “grantsmanship” do carry over: being clear, being

focused, constructing a narrative with a beginning, middle and end, and realizing that your audience has to care about your success. And your job as grant author is to instill that sense of excitement and scholarship that you would need to have, if you were the reader. You have to anticipate that reviewer is reading your grant under the worse case scenario: at 11:37pm on a Wednesday night, after they had a fight with their colleague about who was going to serve on the Committee to Invent Committees, had just had a paper rejected from the high profile journal Stuff, and then needed to be up 5:30am the next morning to get ready for a class on Statistical Coarse Grain Electron Dynamics… this is world in which we all live, and reviewers do the best they can, and you must help them.

And don’t forget about why we do it: we are writing grants largely because we need

funding to keep your group active and supported. We need crew, materials, devices for doing the science, and the equivalent of fuel.

So I approach grant writing with determination and patience and my best

cleverness, because it must be done. Yoda had it right: Do or do not, there is no try.

 

INTERVIEWER

What would you say is key to the young scientist’s development? To me, research           science and the arts run parallel paths. It’s a career mired in failure (failed experiments, rejections from publishers) that requires obstinate will power and a     creative approach. 

 

ELLIOTT

As you say, the arts and sciences are closer than many people would think. Any kind of “building intellectual work”-work requires students to succeed a bit, but fail a bit; to set goals, and attain at least some of them. And to develop over time (and time is crucial) a sense of perspective of what they know and what they realize they do not know.

Thinking about students in a Ph.D. program, I talk to my group once a year about

that path, and the different ways one can define success.  I do think it’s important for young scientists to realize that success can be many different things, and one goal they should have as they build their career is developing their own sense of what they want success to be. In my own case, I certainly didn’t know for certain when I started my Ph.D. that I was going to be a professor of chemistry. And, as they develop that sense of what they want, they need to be in an environment that will foster their development and provide the mentorship required to enable those goals. Part of that process may include realizing that your current mentor doesn’t have what you need from them, and that you may need more mentorship from others. And so you, the young scientist, has to go get it.

INTERVIEWER

If you weren’t a scientist, what would you be doing?

 

ELLIOTT

You mean for my job?  I think I would always be a scientist in terms of point-of-view. But for my job? I honestly have no idea. I’m pretty rubbish at everything else….

 

INTERVIEWER

Climate change denial, creationism, and anti-vax movements are constantly found in today’s print. As a research scientist, do you feel compelled to carry the flag of science against those who deny hard evidence?

 

ELLIOTT

I do. And part of that compulsion for me plays out in picking research problems that are adjacent to these anti-science concerns. But at the same time I realize I can’t be Lord Advocate Science Fighter for Social Justice, and I must continue to push my own research program in order for us to have something to say that makes science as a whole stronger and more compelling.

 

INTERVIEWER

Last, but not least: Beatles, Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, or Pink Floyd? 

 

ELLIOTT

Well, I do like to get my Pb out.  And while the Beatles are the grand masters of our day and age, and I do appreciate the Stones’ amazing longevity, I have to go another way. The Boss is the boss for a reason….

Learn more about Dr. Elliott and his lab here

Feel free to leave your thoughts on the interview in the comments section.

©2019 by EG Lund.