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Profiles Of Scientists And Engineers: Chemist

7 minutes

(Describer) A montage shows scenes of a man with short dark hair working in a lab, scuba diving, jogging, working at a desk and working on a car that's up on blocks. He slides out from under the car.

Hi, my name's Jon Wilker, and I study mussels.

(Describer) Video of a group of the small shellfish is intercut with scenes of different types of them.

(Describer) An aquarium stands in a room Jon enters.

(Jon Wilker) I got into science because I've always found it to be interesting. I've always wanted to understand how things work, and how you can make new things. Chemistry is a good avenue for that because you can get down to a very fundamental level just to understand how the world works.

(female narrator) Jon is a chemist at Purdue University in Indiana. His research lab investigates the adhesive qualities of marine organisms like oysters and mussels. We've been interested in studying mussels because they make interesting materials. Mussels will find a nice rock they like and attach themselves to the surface. In doing this, they produce adhesive, a glue, to stick. It's kind of interesting. There's many applications for a biologically-produced adhesive that can set in a wet environment, something that makes really strong bonds to the surface, like a surgical or dental adhesive.

(Describer) He and his team work with mussels in different tanks.

In a typical experiment, we'll develop a new coating, we'll take a bunch of metal test plates, we'll coat them all. Typically, we just paint them on, roll them on. Then we'll put them in seawater. We'll add animals on top and let them put their adhesive if they choose to. They have preference as to when they put their adhesive down. After they put the adhesive down, we'll cut off the animal, then with each adhesive, there's individual plaques, discs of glue. We'll put it on the Instron machine, clamp onto the threads, pull that up,

(Describer) Clamps are used to hold them together.

and then we'll know how strong the adhesive is.

(Describer) The machine pulls on a thread of adhesive until it breaks. The team opens mussel shells and paints plates. Driving a car...

This morning, we have a chance to do a fun aspect of the job: field work. It's gonna be cold.

(Describer) In a wetsuit, he heads into a lake.

We're also trying to prevent adhesion-- developing antifouling surfaces for ship hulls. If you could prevent the fouling of barnacles, mussels, and various types of algae onto ships, that'd be great. Because reducing the drag of the ship, you'll need less fuel. You're burning less fuel, so then creating less pollution. So less CO2.

(Describer) Work continues in the lab.

(narrator) In the lab or classroom, Jon shares his passion for science.

(Wilker) I like teaching classes. But I also work with graduate students in the lab, teaching them how to research, and mentoring them. The graduate students are completely essential to running the lab, and when you're the professor, and you get in the lab occasionally, and you talk to the graduate students, help guide them in their projects. But each student has their own independent project.

(Describer) Each wearing a lab coat, the students work in the lab.

A lot of the science is a gradual progression, and you're building up knowledge and pictures until you finally may have an understanding that you're happy with.

(narrator) As part of their research, Jon's team perform experiments that someday may save lives.

(Wilker) We have many different projects happening in our lab. All are really exciting. We're trying to develop new compounds to prevent cancer, not cure cancer, but prevent it from happening in the first place.

(Describer) He sits at a computer in his office.

We work really hard. You can't sugarcoat it and say, "Work 30, 40 hours a week, you'll be fine." It's not the case nowadays. Expectations are high. However, it's really rewarding. One benefit is that when you start up your own lab, you work on whatever you want.

(Describer) A team member opens a machine and takes out a small vial.

After we characterize the animal adhesive, we design synthetic versions of the adhesive, preserving some of the interesting adhesive chemistry, but at the same time, dialing in some flexibility into the system so we can adapt the properties of the material for different applications. To support our lab's research, we need money. To get money, we write proposals to the federal funding agencies. This is a drawer showing an example of some of the proposals we've written over recent years.

(Describer) He shows dozens of them.

Some have been successful, a lot of them have not. Okay, let's just not think about that anymore and close this for now.

(Describer) He closes the drawer they fill.

(narrator) Jon loves science, and puts time into it, but also enjoys his free time. I like to jog. It relaxes me and keeps me in somewhat decent shape. I feel good after that. You can work through things from research in your mind, or use it to step back from research. I kinda like that.

(Describer) He jogs up a ramp outside.

Obviously, scuba diving is a constant-- somewhat research related, but it's mostly a hobby. Although, it's the hobby that got me into this research area.

(Describer) After diving...

Hey, that was fun. And really cold. Another fun thing is learning how to race cars. Excellent, cool. I'll see you at the track.

(Describer) He hangs up a phone.

Sometimes you're working under the car, and that can be relaxing and therapeutic.

(Describer) He works on his car in fast-motion, takes it off blocks and drives away.

One of the nice things about this job is traveling, sometimes to conferences in far-flung places. And sometimes the traveling can be in nice places you want to visit. In my case, I recently went to a conference in Australia. While I was there, we got the dive gear and explored the Great Barrier Reef and looked for new research topics and ideas. You get to decide what you want to work on. Do something that looks really cool. If you think science is great, do it. That's the best thing about this, you can find some cool science and go out and do it, so that's fun.

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Chemist Jon Wilker discusses some of his latest chemistry projects.

Media Details

Runtime: 7 minutes

Profiles Of Scientists And Engineers
Episode 1
10 minutes
Grade Level: 9 - 12
Profiles Of Scientists And Engineers
Episode 2
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Episode 3
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Episode 4
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Episode 10
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