As David Lynn researches how life first evolved, he is finding ways to explain the complex science to the public.
By Carol Clark
Georgia chemist Charles Herty applied his research to transform the economy of the South, and his charisma to become a crusader for the profession. Herty traveled the nation, from 1915 until he died in 1938, delivering spell-binding talks and sparking conversations about the importance of chemistry among politicians, academics, businessmen and women’s clubs.
His legacy lives on through the Charles H. Herty Medal, awarded this year to David Lynn, the Asa Griggs Candler Professor of Chemistry and Biology at Emory. The gold medallion, inscribed with “pro scientia et patria” (for science and country), is given annually by the Georgia Section of the American Chemical Society (ACS) to recognize outstanding work and service of a chemist or chemical engineer from the 11 states of the Southeast.
“The award celebrates the ability of scientists to give back to a community in many different ways. That’s what makes it so special to me,” Lynn says.
“David was selected for his role in advancing the understanding of chemical evolution, and for his service in public outreach for the chemical sciences. He’s a true leader in both areas,” says Rigoberto Hernandez, a chemist at Georgia Tech and current chair of the Herty Award Committee.
The medal, one of the oldest awards of the ACS, and the highest honor given by the Georgia Section, will be presented to Lynn at the 79th Annual Herty Award Celebration in Atlanta this month.
As the honoree, Lynn will give a talk entitled “Towards Intelligent Materials,” describing how, during the past decade, our understanding of evolutionary processes and the tree of life has changed more than at any time since Charles Darwin.
“The rate at which technological advances and insights are emerging,” Lynn says, “now demands that we reconsider several of the most fundamental and longstanding questions of our time: What is life, where might it exist, and what forms might it take?”
The Lynn lab is uncovering processes of molecular self-assembly that could boost our ability to engineer living systems. Lynn has served as chair of chemistry at Emory since 2006, and helped establish the Center for Chemical Evolution, a collaboration between Emory, Georgia Tech and other institutions, funded by the National Science Foundation and NASA. The center is testing theories for how chemical reactions may have led to life emerging on Earth some 3.5 billion years ago. Harnessing these forces of evolution could help in everything from drug design to genome engineering.
“I’m a scientist first, and I’m most excited about the discoveries we’re making,” Lynn says. “But it’s equally important to find ways to capture the imagination of the public and explain the meaning of our new knowledge.”
Lynn considers Charles Herty an inspiring role model, both as a chemist and a science ambassador.
Born in Milledgeville in 1867, Herty was a research chemist at the University of Georgia and the University of North Carolina. In 1903 he developed a simple cup-and-gutter system to collect resin from pines without killing the trees. The invention is credited with saving both the southern pine forests and the turpentine and rosin chemical industry. Herty later developed methods to make paper from young, fast-growing pine trees, laying the foundation for a forest products industry in the Southeast.
During World War I, Herty served as ACS president and helped organize chemists to work on critical defense problems like German poison gas attacks. After the war, he lobbied for the expansion of the U.S. chemical industry, and played a key role in its development into an economic powerhouse.
“He used his expertise in chemistry to identify ways that he could contribute to the Southeast, and to the country, at a time when it was really needed,” Lynn says.
Lynn was born in North Carolina, but he spent the bulk of his career at the University of Chicago. He returned to his home region when he joined Emory in 2000.
“We’re entering a challenging time in science communication, because advances are happening so fast,” Lynn says. “Meanwhile, much of the nation, particularly the Southeast, is still struggling to understand scientific theories like evolution.”
Lynn used a $1 million award from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute to create a program for graduate students to teach freshmen about their research, so that they learn to explain their science while doing it.
He frequently taps the visual arts, music and theater to get across key concepts. “Group Intelligence,” in collaboration with Out of Hand Theater for instance, involves children and adults from all walks of life in a flash mob that simulates the interactions of molecules.
“I want to spark conversations about scientific theories like evolution in unexpected places, such as a concert hall, a shopping mall, an art gallery or a park,” Lynn says. “The idea is to use art to create dialogue about the beauty and science of the world that we inhabit.”