Ivan Aprahamian on the Promise of Science

(Photo by Rob Strong ’04)

This Focus on Faculty Q&A is one in a ongoing series of interviews exploring what keeps Dartmouth professors busy inside—and outside—the classroom.

Ivan Aprahamian, an associate professor of chemistry, has taught at Dartmouth since 2008. He talks about why chemistry intrigues him, how to get children interested in the field, and why it’s important to dispel the stereotype of the scientist as nerd.

When did you first become interested in chemistry?

I would say in high school. We had an experiment in the lab, and we made H2S, a very smelly compound. You are supposed to do this on a very, very small scale to keep its odor under control. But we didn’t. It smelled so bad—like rotten eggs—that we had to evacuate the school. I knew I was going to be in for a fun ride with chemistry.

And that caught your attention.

Yes. Also, chemistry caught my attention because it’s a field in which you can make things that don’t exist otherwise. There are constant challenges and you are constantly thinking about how to solve problems. And I love solving problems.

You were educated in Israel and did a postdoc at UCLA. What drew you to Dartmouth?

The chemistry program here is a small one, which was exactly what I was looking for. I didn’t want to go to a big state university. I like teaching—teaching and doing research at the same time. They are mutually inclusive activities; they inform one another.

What is your research group, the Aprahamian Group, working on?

We work mainly with molecular switches. These are molecules that can be switched between two different states, like a light switch. You switch it on, the light goes on; you switch it off, and there's no more light.  We do the same thing with molecules, so it's a much smaller scale, and we turn different functions and properties “on” and “off.” For example, we want to use our light-activated switches in fine-tuning the efficacy of anti-cancer drugs. This way we can activate them only where there are cancer cells, and hence eliminate the deleterious side effects associated with killing healthy cells. We also want to use these switches in molecular actuators and sensing toxic compounds.

You won a prestigious National Science Foundation (NSF) Career Award last year to support five years of research.

Yes. It’s an award for young investigators so they can continue with their research and educational activities. The research proposal mainly focused on the molecular switches we are developing here at Dartmouth. A third of the proposal was about how I’d integrate my research with my teaching, and I also elaborated on the outreach projects that we are doing to spread the gospel of science and chemistry to the general public.

You and your students have done a lot of work with young students—at the Montshire Museum of Science, the Vermont Institute of Natural Science, the U.S Science and Engineering Festival in Washington, D.C.—why do you do all this outreach?

That is part of what we do as educators: outreach and making a difference beyond the classroom setting. We do this by using interactive, hands-on and experiential educational tools to promote science. Through our outreach projects, we also interact with a lot of kids. I find it counterproductive that science is associated with—how to put this—not Einstein himself, but the Einstein caricature, the egghead with the long hair.

The nerd.

The nerd, exactly. Part of what we do is show kids that scientists are no different from them. It’s to show them that they too can be scientists and make a difference. So why do we do outreach? Well, part of it is to share with the general public our exciting work; part of it is to spark scientific curiosity and attract the younger generation to pursue science; and part of it is to educate the public about the value of science and bridge an understanding between those who fund the research and those do the research.

Why is that important?

Well, any type of advancement will require both monetary capital and human capital—those who fund the research and those who do the research. In order for us to excel and maintain our competitive global role in science, we must be the leaders who are shaping the field, serving humanity, and finding out what's going to be the next big thing. And for that we need a serious commitment to science funding so we can have the technologies we need in 50 years. It's not only technology. It's also health related. It's energy related. Anything that's going to benefit humankind.

What is something you learned from your mentors that you hope to impart?

My PhD supervisor was hands off, so he let us do whatever we wanted to do, which I liked a lot because it gave me the freedom to explore and follow my own scientific gut and curiosity. It allowed me to grow, to make mistakes and learn from them too! Of course, I knew that he was also always there to give me feedback and help me when I went completely astray. I try to do this here as well. It sometimes works and sometimes it doesn't. I want to empower my students so they can do their own research and be as self-motivated and driven as I am. I have high expectations of them. Of course I always have to remind myself that my students are not me, and that each one of them has her or his own pace of self-discovery.

You describe yourself as driven.

I am an Israeli. When you grow up knowing that you could step on a bus any day and be blown up, you don’t want to waste time.

I don't know if this is what you would call a high-stress life.

Our life is high stress, I would say. Oh yes.

How do you deal with that?

I go and smoke a cigar. No. (Laughs.) I go outside and hike. I go kayaking or canoeing to take a break. I am learning how to sail. I need this time to recharge.

When are you happiest?

Every single time we nail a problem and hammer out the solution after a storm of difficulties.

That sounds exciting.

It's very exciting. It's a high that quickly goes out. But there's always another one, another upcoming challenge, right? There's always another mountaintop to climb.  There is this rush when you’re on top. And there is this other kind of rush and drive to get to the top of the next mountain, when you pause and wonder, what's next? 

Not satisfied with the status quo.

That's for sure. I think most of us in academia are like that. We're not satisfied with the status quo.

Because you want to know more…

I want to understand things as much as possible. It is an inherent human trait. We can use this scientific spirit for inquiry, wonderment, and experimentation to create a better future. We might not be able to cure cancer today, but with enough resources, I don’t see why this can’t be accomplished in the coming decades.