Mar 9, 2021
In this episode, we welcome Dr. Christer Aakeröy, university distinguished professor in the Department of Chemistry at Kansas State University. Dr. Aakeröy’s research lab focuses on supramolecular and crystal engineering. By translating molecular function into predictable intermolecular recognition, he is creating versatile pathways for improving processing, performance and shelf life of pharmaceuticals, agrochemicals, dyes, and energetic materials.
I'm thrilled to bits with the way that this is working out. And even if we don't make the world's best new fertilizer, I'm still perfectly comfortable with learning so much more about what is required. And maybe I can't make the difference but my students and Ganga’s students and postdocs can take this to the next level and I think that's the legacy that is worth pursuing.
Something to Chew On is a podcast devoted to the exploration and discussion of Global Food Systems produced by the Office of Research Development at Kansas State University. I'm Maureen Olewnik, coordinator of Global Food Systems.
And I'm Colene Lind, Associate Professor of Communication Studies at Kansas State. I studied the public's role in science and environmental policy.
And I'm Jon Faubion. I'm a food scientist.
Hello everybody and welcome back to the Kansas State University Global Food Systems podcast Something to Chew On. In today's podcast we will visit with Dr. Christer Aakeröy. Dr. Aakeröy is a University Distinguished Professor of Chemistry at K State. His area of research is focused on the science of communication and change between molecules. This work emphasizes the synthesis of organic molecules, some of which are used in the formation of cocrystals. This versatile material can be used in creating new methods for delivery of important components in agrochemicals, pharmaceuticals and other areas where controlled directed releases useful. In this podcast we will discuss Dr. Aakeröy's interdisciplinary work with Dr. Ganga Hettiarachchi, Professor of Agronomy here at K State on the targeted release of soil nutrients in crop production.
I should say before we start that, unlike my usual self, I'm going to be rather the mirror today. I'm just fascinated by the work that Christer is doing. But I know that you're a chemist. So I know that you'll have a lot smarter questions about Reno that presupposes a lot of don't question. Fair. But you know, and Christer, just for your edification, as I, I'm really fascinated by you have to know that. Obviously, I'm not a chemist. And it's probably the weakest of my subjects when it comes to scientific understanding. I'm really I understand what you're doing. But the CO crystallization that's, I'm, I need some help on that. So just definitely specific growth as we go along to get that but I'm really curious. And I hope that when we leave here, I understand this idea of CO crystallization better.
Okay, well, I'm gonna I'm gonna attempt some ill advised or ill conceived analogies in that case, to try to put that science across. And yeah, it might get a little risky at times, but we'll clean you be happy to know that chemistry is only about communication. That's all there is to it. There you go. There you go.
I was struck by that. As you know, the first word on your description is communication. And I think, Oh, really? I'm intrigued, but I'm not sure. So let's find out more.
To welcome today, our guest Dr. Christer Aakeröy, who is a professor in the Department of Chemistry at Kansas State University. In welcoming Dr. Aakeröy, as I get started here, I would, I would like to say that I have people ask me how something like chemistry fits into the Global Food System. And from my perspective, it's a critical piece. And this is critical as any of the other pieces is as critical as transportation, or Agronomy or Plant Pathology or any of the above. One of the analogies I use frequently is to discuss food from a grocery store or from a farmer's market being at the very tip of the iceberg. And that's where we interface most frequently with the food that we however, the fundamentals that happen in research in the basic sciences and chemistry and physics and those types of areas are at the base of the iceberg. And those are the things that support ongoing abilities to move forward with technologies and that type of thing and it's as critical a piece of the food system as anything. So with that being said, I will then jumped into, again welcoming Dr. Aakeröy, and asked if you could give us a little background on who you are, how you got interested in the work that you're doing. And then maybe we'll just take it from there.
Thank you very much. And thank you very much for inviting me to this podcast as well. Maybe we should warn the listeners to this particular episode that I have relatively limited experience with farming or food science, food production, and food distribution. But as a chemist, I still believe that chemistry is underpinning all of these different efforts that we are looking at. So maybe there's going to be something that can be useful to the listeners. At the end of the day.
My own background is quite, quite diverse. I grew up in Sweden, I have a Norwegian passport. And I was never ever ever going to be a scientist. My goal when I was in high school was to be a psychologist or a psychiatrist, I didn't really know the difference between the two at that point. I applied to go to do psychology at Uppsala University in Sweden, they had only 10 positions. And I was the first on the reserve list. So I didn't get introduced ecology unfortunately, as a result that I decided to take a year off. And maybe this was my first contact with food because I took a job in a meat processing plant meat packing and meat processing. I learned a lot about the sort of rather harsh end of the Global Food Systems industry. And I can't really say that it was love at first sight, I have to be perfectly honest. It was long hours hard work. But I learned a lot about people I learned a lot about different skills. And it wasn't really something that I ever thought I do. But I spent a year in a meat packing and meat processing plant. After that I decided to switch so I became a substitute teacher and stuff because I still couldn't get into psychology at Uppsala University. So I became a substitute teacher. And I don't know, if you remember what it was like, at school, when you had a substitute teacher. If you had a substitute teacher, nobody would do anything. But it was to me it was a really, really interesting and valuable experience because you walk into a classroom with maybe 30 or 40 students. They're not interested in you if you're not interested in the topic. And it is really a challenge to try to basically have maybe 30 seconds or a minute to win or lose that battle. You walk in you try to read the room, you try to figure out who how you can communicate with these students. And it turns out that I, I think I won more battles that I lost by and large, which made me realize I wanted to become a teacher at the end of the day. So I went to University eventually. I did Chemistry, and I had minors in Mathematics and Biology and in Pedagogy. So I actually got myself a teaching degree from Uppsala University, I started teaching still never had any intention of becoming a full time proper scientist. Long story short, I had a chance to travel to the UK to do some Chemistry at the University of Sussex, which is south of London. It wasn't really because I was interested in Chemistry, per se. It was more a case of having an opportunity to do live abroad. First London which is which was a fantastic experience. One thing led to another I was offered a place to do a PhD at the University of Sussex. I didn't quite know what a PhD was, unfortunately. So of course I had to say yes, so I accepted Teamspeak and that was in Chemistry. I still didn't really know what I wanted to do at that point, which is strange, because at that point I had a doctoral degree in chemistry. I applied for two jobs. One was the British Petroleum. And one was at Queen's University of Belfast, I interviewed at both places. My interview at Queen's University in Belfast is probably was the other of the whole podcast itself. But I was offered a job at Queen's University Belfast and I stayed there for three years did Inorganic Chemistry. I got tenure. And then I resigned two weeks later because I had been sort of headhunted by Kansas State University. I couldn't really refuse. To be perfectly honest, I never saw myself moving to your living in the United States, let alone in the Midwest, in the middle of the Midwest. But now I've been here for close to over 20 years and certainly from a career perspective and a life perspective. It's probably the most definitely the best decision I ever made.
I have, like I said, I've lived in that K State now for over 20 years. My research spans a wide range topics, food size is bad in minor, minor, minor minor, out of that. We did a lot of fundamental research in chemistry. And we can talk more about that in a while. I teach a variety of freshman classes I do, like I still really, really enjoyed the teaching. The bigger the class, the more enjoyment I get out of it, I think. So I can't wait for this particular lockdown and, and zoom based educational methodology to be over so we can actually get that teaching in person again, because luckily, the research is going my students are in the research labs on a regular basis. So we haven't been too badly affected by that. But yeah, I mean, so difficult times, but we're going to get through it. And we're going to get through it because of big science and STEM research. That's basically what's going to help us out in this process. So that's a little bit of a starting point.
Well, thank you for that background and overview. i It's interesting to understand the directions and different directions that people take and getting from, you know, what they think they want to do when they're 18 years old, where you actually ended up today and certainly ending up in Manhattan, Kansas is taking you a long way from where you started.
Actually all senses that he senses. Absolutely. In reading through the research that you have been most heavily focused on at K State. I keep seeing the term cocrystals over and over again popping up. Can you explain to us in layman's terms a bit about what that research is? What is the cocrystal? And how does it impact research?
Right, so let's in that case, we have to probably go back to basics a little bit. So making a contrast is essentially trying to convince different types of molecules to coexist in a crystalline or solid material. And that might sound relatively straightforward. But it turns out that molecules more than likely are not keen to coexist with other molecules that are different from themselves. In the same crystalline, solid environment. In many ways, molecules are rather selfish. They like to hang out with molecules that look exactly like themselves. They are a little bit suspicious. Molecules, they don't look like themselves. So in some ways, they are a little bit like people as well. So one of the one of the buzzwords that we use in my research is that we think we like to talk about the Chemistry that we do in terms of molecular sociology, or psychology, we are basically, we're basically trying to figure out how we can convince molecules to interact productively, to recognize other molecules to bind to other molecules. Because when different molecules bind and hang out together, they can perform and do very, very different things. And there are many analogies that you can make with this. For example, if you have a football team, with only quarterbacks, that football team is not going to win anything at all. But if you have different molecules or players in different positions, then as a whole team, then you can do very, very, very different things. And the same is true for molecules. I think one of the illustrations that we sometimes refer to is that, let's say, let's say if you have a cup of coffee in the morning, and some people for some reason like to put sugar in the coffee. At the end of the day, you forget about a cup of coffee, and you leave the coffee cup sitting for a day or two, you come back to it and the water is gone. And at the bottom of the cup, you will have crystals of caffeine. And you'll have different separate crystals of sugar. Now each trickle contains billions upon billions and billions of molecules of caffeine in caffeine crystals, and billions upon billions of dollars of molecules of sucrose, no sugar in the sugar crystals, you will not find a single molecule being able to fit in to the other type of crystal because they're the molecules are so selective and so specific about what other molecules they're willing to spend time with, and what other molecules that are willing to recognize and bind with. So in that sense, molecules are very, very selfish. So making a cocrystal to figure out what molecules want. And what we tried to do in my group, then we did for a longest time, that was the basic research that we did was to try to interrogate individual molecules and find out. So based upon the shape, the size, the particular functionality of a molecule, what would that molecule look like in a potential partner? Is it something to do with shape? Is it something to do with size? Is it something to do with the different elements that make up that molecule? So in many, many, many early experiments, we played a molecular dating game, if you like. But it's really like a dating game. So we essentially, we introduced one target molecule to another set of molecules, maybe three or four different potential partners. And we let them spend time together, we dissolve them together in some solvent. And as the experiment, figure out, if they did crystallize together in a cocrystal, or if they just went their separate ways. So based upon hundreds, if not 1000s, of experiments, we can begin to figure out dating guidelines for molecules. So this point, we are really treated, that knowing what a molecule wants. So if you can draw a molecule, if you can describe a molecule to me, I can probably give you a pretty decent idea of what kind of partner is the best fit for that molecule. And that is the basis for how we make country schools. So calculus is just a macroscopic overview of that. So we convince one type of molecules to form a new solid material with another type of molecules. And the reason why we want to do that is we want to make new materials where the properties of that material is taking the best of both worlds. And that's really the driving force for making cocrystals. And that's just very, very briefly what a country's length, this might sound a little bit like, like, regular dating, as well. And, um, we have actually made the molecular dating. I'm going to tell you about that.
Fascinating. It is fascinating, Christer, this is really helpful to me, I find myself wanting to follow up on several different possible threads of the, you know, human social analogy that you suggest to us. So when you say that you had a dating app for Oculus? I can I assume them that the rules that you have discovered, for what molecules like to hang out with other modern molecules are fairly contextualist or objectives? In other words, I would think that whether or not size or shape or whatever other characteristic is relevant to a good match would depend by and large on what kind of molecule or what class of molecule? I mean, how hard is it to sort of abstract out these rules to other kinds of molecules and larger groups?
Yeah, no, I mean, that is that is the the big question, because, obviously, in order to have these, in order to identify these guidelines for molecular dating, they have to be somewhat transferable between classes of compounds and between classes of molecules, you can't just have one set of guidelines for molecule A and then have another set of guidelines for molecule B, because then you're not making any progress. But it turns out that, by a large molecules are just like many of us quite superficial, in that sense, is looked for, for a few couple of key characteristics. They don't really worry too much about personality, initially, at least it's usually about looks in some usually about a trade. And it's usually about appearance. And that typically most frequently leads to a recognition event, which leads to binding. And once that binding takes place, the chances are that you are going to poetry's to where both partners are present together, whether the properties of that material are going to be better or worse than those expressed by the two individuals. That is difficult to predict. But the big thing the molecular dating app that my students put together, essentially will be really, really, really somewhat frightening. primitive in essence, because you've put in a few descriptors of your molecule, and then the program will list a set of potential partners as likely, very likely or highly unlikely to be suitable candidates. And that's it. So it's, it's a swipe left, swipe right kind of deal. But just for molecules. Wow, you didn't know that about molecules. So they had personalities that had a social life like that, did you?
I had no idea. No, I did not.
Ultimately, the reason why we want to pursue this is that, for example, if I can, there is the first application we looked at here was actually in the pharmaceutical industry. Because it turns out that a vast number of potentially useful pharmaceutical drugs fail to reach the patient, because they have, they may have a really good biological properties, biological activity, but they have very poor physical properties, physical properties, like solubility, for example, you'd be astounded at how many compounds fail in development, because they're not soluble in water. Now, if a drug isn't soluble in water, it's not going to be good to water based organisms like us. So what we tried to do in that context was to try to combine the biologically active, maybe a cancer drug, which was poorly poorly soluble in water, with a co former, a partner that was very, very soluble in water. Now, if we convinced the two to live together in one crystalline material, we could take advantage of the favorable biological activity of the cancer drug, and the favorable physical water solubility or the other component. And that will then take us from something that couldn't possibly make it to the market into a formulation that potentially could make it to the market because now, it combined the best of both worlds, trying to figure that out in advance, is still something that we can't do with too much certainty. For the longest time, we would still be trying to work out how we get those molecules to live together, and that we have a pretty good handle on.
you, in some cases drives the process by a solvent that is almost partitioning, or do you have to add energy to the system to get it to just fleetingly change? Its its three dimensional property, so it would then start it would interact? And then once it's sort of caught?
Yeah, I was gonna say, Yeah, well, not to push this analogy too far. But initially, we made we do all these experiments in solution. So we have to have a solvent that we can use. And more often than not, it's the solvent is some sort of alcohol. I'm not saying that that is helping the molecules to get together. But you need to find a solvent, it could be, it could be an alcoholic, could be water, it could be acetone, it could be chloroform, it could be all sorts of things. But you need some sort of solvent in which both components are reasonably comfortable. Because if they're both reasonably comfortable, then there is no partitioning or no segregation, within that experimental space within that mixture. And that will then facilitate the close proximity of the two, or the different types of molecules. And that's ultimately going to make it easier for them to nucleate or to bind to recognize them to nucleate. And ultimately, to crystallize together. solvent is an important choice, but we don't have to add, we don't heat them up. We simply rely on the sort of improved the ability that Partner A and Partner B have together to the stability they have with themselves. Okay, yeah. So this is pretty much like a partnership between humans as well. I think the idea is that two humans in a partnership will be stronger than the individual components by themselves. And I think the same applies in many ways to molecules to so there’s an energetic benefit to having different components together. So molecular diversity in this sense is a really strong driving force for what we try to accomplish.
Gotcha. Okay. And how do you measure the outcome of the experiment? If you now have a solution that has a compound B, compound, see this the cocrystal have that?
Yes. Yeah, it's relatively straightforward actually. So in the case of, so you can measure some simple things the left if we take the example of caffeine, which is pure, solid, and sugar, which is the pure solid, so we can measure their melting point meaning there thermal stability separately, and we can make measure their solubility of water separately. And then we make the country school. And then we can measure the melting point of the cocrystal, which is inevitably going to be different to the melting point of individuals we can make, we can measure the aqueous solubility. And by doing those kinds of measurements systematically, we have, we fixed the target. And we test it out with a series of different core formers that are a little bit different from each other. And that way, then we can begin to correlate physical properties of the bulk material to some sort of feature of the individual molecules. Because ideally, at the end of the day, we would like to be able to predict basic properties that are fundamentally important just by looking at the molecules themselves currently, that cannot be done.
Yeah, right. Otherwise, it just be a series of giant survey experiments every time.
Exactly. And I'm too lazy to do 1000 experiments, I would rather just do experiments to do the right experiments. These guidelines and the way we're developed now, structure property correlations, is helping us to do that. And I think having multiple components in one Christian crystalline environments means that we can make these we can tailor make the properties. And we can make them more or less suit or more suitable to a specific target and to a specific application. So for the pharmaceutical applications, we typically we're looking for increased aqueous solubility, so solubility of water. In many agrochemical applications, we're looking for the opposite. We're looking for maybe fertilizers and pesticides and herbicides that are less soluble in water, which means that you have a slow, much more controlled release of the active substance. So if you have a sudden rainfall, which can happen all over the place, the whole, all the pesticides and herbicides that you've sprayed on the crops in the fields is not going to disappear overnight, it'll still be slowly slowly released over an extended period of time. Now, if we can tailor those kinds of simple properties, stability, mechanical strength, melting, temperature, ability to withstand moisture, heat, then we have something that is classified or can be thought of as smarter or more responsive material. And that can be an issue anti cancer drug, it can be a fertilizer, it could be pesticide, it could be an explosive, it could be all sorts of things.
Great segue into discussing a little bit about the seed grant proposal that you received funding for recently, as the title of this is exploring cocoa crystal technologies for efficient and sustainable nutrient management. And this project you're doing in conjunction with Dr. Ganga Hettiarachchi, and in the Department of Agronomy and in the Agricultural College, can you give us a bit of background on how you ended up working with Dr. Hettiarachchi on this and kind of the direction that that proposal is taking.
But again, it's it's I think it's random, I think that's the best way to describe it. Actually, I actually met Ganga at a sort of a Buddhist ceremony. It was not a Buddhist, but she was hosting a ceremony for Ali was the sort of funeral service for a parent at one of my students. And Ganga was kind enough to host this in our house. So that's where we met up. And it turns out, the first thing she said to me is that I was your student at one point to which made me feel incredibly old, obviously. But it turns out, Ganga, who is now a full professor in Agronomy was in my very first class that I taught in Inorganic Chemistry here at Kansas State University. But anyway, so yeah, we had met before. And we started talking about the things that she was doing, and the things that we were doing, and we realized that there was an interface that we might be able to explore and exploit because she is sort of world famous world class soil scientist, and she knows everything there is to know about sorry, chemistry. I know nothing about solid chemistry, but I know how to change physical properties of materials such as fertilizers. So that made us think that maybe if we can make some new formulations and new or different types of fertilizers with slightly different properties, then she would be able to test them out in her lab with her expertise. And figure out if these new formulations, actually, they made a substantial significant impact on performance in such a way that we could maximize efficiency and minimize negative environmental, environmental impacts of over fertilizing, for example. So that's how that little project got started. That's great.
They had in looking through the proposal that you submitted on this, I know that you're in the process of working through this project at this point in time and don't have results yet. But there were three separate approaches, is can you step through some of those and explain a bit about how the cocrystal portion of this is going to be working with an interfacing with what the soil science pieces of it is doing? Right, I'm referring to the organic urea cocrystals for ionic cocrystals And then you have organico crystals for developing both nitrogen and phosphorus. It's there's some background you can give us on those.
Yeah. So, the starting point for this is very simple molecule called urea, urea is the is the probably the most common fertilizer, I think approximately 220 million tons of urea is produced every year globally 90% of that is used as fertilizer. Now, urea has a lot of great advantages, it has the high nitrogen content 46% of the weight of urea is nitrogen. So, it has the highest nitrogen content of any fertilizer, it is cheap to a large extent, but there are several drawbacks with this particular fertilizer first of all, it is really soluble, which on some level is good, but it also means that it can leach out into the groundwater really rather quickly, which is a disadvantage. Urea by itself is not absorbed or taken up by the plants urea has to go through several steps, which takes place in the soil. So urea is converted to ammonium ions to hydrogen carbonate and to nitrates. And then in those formats, then the plants can make nitrogen be more accessible. Now, the breakdown of urea is usually done by a naturally occurring enzyme that will break down urea, but a large amount of the urea that is being broken down does not reach the plant ultimately, because the breakdown is too fast, some of the urea is going to be into greenhouse gases. So some of the urea when it breaks down produces ammonia, and dye nitrogen oxygen, oxygen oxide, which are both greenhouse gases. And nitrate ions contributes negatively to eutrophication as well. So there are plenty of drawbacks with urea. And at the end of the day, it turns out that almost 50% of the RIA that is applied to crops globally is not going to reach the farm. So if we do the math, then it means that we are spreading maybe close to 100 million tonnes of fertilizers that will never reach the plant. Now that is not efficient. So, the way we're going to try to tweak this a little bit was to try to make cocrystals of urea, where the CO former or the partner would tailor their solubility in such a way that the unwanted breakdown of urea was going to be slowly slow down. So, a smaller portion of was going to disappear into the atmosphere and a smaller portion of the urea was going to disappear into the groundwater. So that would maximize the efficiency of the transformation from urea to nitrogen that plants could actually absorb. So, initially, our job is to try to make a large number of different characteristics of urea.
So the what we are trying to accomplish in my group then is to try to change some of the physical properties or the Yeah, some of the physical properties Urei itself, notably its solubility and stability, because we want to try to minimize urea breakdown in such a way that we don't siphon off a lot of the nitrogen into unwanted products that will have a negative environmental impact. And we don't want to siphon off nitrogen in forms that will lead to increased eutrophication. So we want to max it really would like to have 100% of the nitrogen that we put on the crops end up in the plant. So we call for most that we combined with urea are primarily there at this point at least to try to reduce Use or control the solubility of water in such a way that urea goes in much more slowly. And there is more of a controlled release of the fertilizer over an extended period of time, which, in principle then should maximize the efficiency of the formulation and maximize the distribution of fertilizer onto the fields. Ultimately, if we can limit the amount of fertilizer that we distribute, without losing any of the beneficial effects on food production and food supply, that is obviously the ultimate goal for that particular part. And for those other two projects that we have funded in that seed grant, it's going to be very, very similar. We haven't done a lot of work in that area, because we really only started a couple of months ago. So initially, our focus had been primarily on making these organic crystals. I'm happy to report and I just found this out literally a couple of hours ago, because I was on a Zoom meeting with Ganga in the agronomy department. And her and her students or postdocs have started to work on exploring if there are notable differences in soil samples that have been treated with pure urea compared to those that have been treated with cocrystals of urea, because you can imagine that the worst case scenario for us would be that once they go into the soil, there is no noticeable difference in their effect. But I'm happy to report that it turns out that the formulations that we've made, these countries and stuff we've made, make a significant difference in terms of how the breakdown of urea into these different components take place. And this gives us a lot of encouragement, because now we can begin to tailor make partners, because we know that it works, the proof of principle is in place. So we can now begin to target co foremost that can provide additional value to the fertilizer, we can provide micronutrients, we can provide components that would control the way in which the enzyme breaks down the array itself. Which means that again, we can dial in release and transfer and transformation of nitrogen that can be utilized by the plant to nitrogen, it can be utilized by the plant in a much more manageable manner. And I think long term, that's really what we're hoping to do to better manage the nitrogen cycle. And ultimately, the goal to do that is to provide more sustainable food supplies, and maximize efficiency.
And also to minimize the environmental impact we I personally live in the country, and we are water comes from a well. There's farmland all around us. And nitrates is probably my biggest concern about the water coming out of that.
Well, right. Yeah, to pick up on that point. And if we can, if we can more, or if we can better control the release of nitrogen into the soil and make it more available to the plant when they needed, then of course, we can address both environmental issues, cost and sustainability all at once. So it's kind of a it's a, in some ways, is a blue sky project. But I think the results that we've seen, even after a few months on working on this are actually quite promising. Wow. And we couldn't do any of this without thinking that global food systems avoided us and I couldn't do any of this without the expertise that can get a heterogeneous group are providing us as well. So it's yeah, it's a really, really good interface between two areas where she's in the field in a very, very different way. And I'm in the lab, doing very fundamental science and I in a million years, I didn't think I was going to do something that you one day might be actually be able to buy in a store. But here we are, may not be too many years down the line.
The initial results that you just stated are really exciting. I think that the potential for having a major impact is as you said, it's kind of a blue sky project with the sounds like demand the potential is high. What are the other things that I know from this and really through the Global Food Systems we're trying to promote in a big way one of the things we try to promote obviously, is the interdisciplinary activities which clearly you and you and Ganga have have taken to a great level. But the other thing is with the students and I was you know in thinking through how the students are interfacing with one another, I thought you know, the soil students have most certainly taken chemistry classes. So the chemistry has been important part of what they do, but the chemistry students, chances of them having background in the soils area is probably pretty limited. Where do you see the benefit of that kind of interaction are the students having the ability to work together and kind of broaden their base understanding of things as you work through this project.
But I think every time Well, first of all, every time you step out of your comfort zone, you learn something about yourself about what you do and what above what other people do. But I think in practice, so we spent 10 years developing molecular dating rules. And then suddenly, we go over to agronomy. And we, we look at actual samples of sand of soil. And we begin to realize what the challenges are, and how we might begin to address those by changing what we do in the chemistry lab, in order to better suit and better serve the requirements and the challenges that real life scientists face on a daily basis. And ultimately, then, the real life challenges that the farmer or the consumer are facing on a daily basis. If you don't walk out of your lab, if you don't physically see smell, I should say taste. But almost if you don't feel that in your hands, you don't really, really understand what you need to be able to do in order to make a difference. So I think I know that my students has, has really started thinking much more differently and much more deeply about how she can use her skill set on making these concrete skills into being able to translate that into products, to translate that into something that will have a huge benefit, not just to know the local economy in in the Midwest, but also to people back in her home country. So she's from Zimbabwe, and she there is a very agro driven country as a learner, we've been having several conversations about that maybe one day, she would like to go back and educate, teach and make a big, big difference in terms of how farming is done in the faraway place 1000s of miles literally away from Kansas State University. And I think the students in the agronomy department also get a different understanding of how you make these particular compounds and what is needed in order to characterize and classify and, and develop new materials. So I couldn't really think of a better connection between real life out there and synthetic fundamental chemistry in the lab, in my group, I mean, I'm thrilled to bits with the way that this is working out. And even if we don't make the world's best new fertilizer, I'm still perfectly comfortable with learning so much more about what is required. And maybe I can't make the difference. But my students and Ganga students and postdocs can take this to the next level. And I think that's the legacy that is worth pursuing.
You are singing the Global Food Systems Initiative song.
I didn't realize you had a song as far as I know, I mean, it's, it's so critically important. And I recall, when I first started working in this position, I'm talking to somebody out of the chemistry department. And so that was there was a physicist or the chemist and I was telling them kind of the work that we were trying to do in bringing interdisciplinary groups together. And one of them looked at me and said, We don't have any impact on the food system. We're in this area. And I thought, oh, goodness, there's work to be done. And convincing on both sides of that equation, that there's so much interaction that's so critical.
Well, I mean, I think as a chemist and I, obviously a little bit biased here, but I think chemistry forms a critical part in every single scientific pursuit because we can make new things. Yes, we can make new molecules, we can make things that never ever existed before. And as a funny aside, actually, I never realized this until I started working with Ganga on this project. So you Raya, this molecule that I've been referring to several times, was first synthesized in 1828, by foolish Birla. And this was essentially represented the birth of organic chemistry. This was by and large, the first organic molecule that was synthesized in the laboratory. So there is there's a historical arc here that I that I quite like as well. Yes, indeed.
Just to follow up on this point about collaboration and interdisciplinary research, you know that I've been fortunate enough to be a part of, I don't know, four or five of these podcasts now. And it really is interesting for someone who has a life outside of the scientific enterprise, to come to a new understanding about how science works. I mean, even, you know, from outside of science, I think of it as a competitive venture. So, early on in our conversation, I was thinking to myself, I wonder if there's anyone else in the world who has a lab that's doing similar kinds of investigations with molecular dating rules? Surely there is, but maybe not, I don't know. But now that we've come full circle, for the end of the conversation, I'm realizing that the most important point was that this collaboration happened. And you might not have ever discovered the ways that they would have been applied without this kind of collaboration. So I'm glad we got this thing.
To address your point as well, of course, there is, I mean, science and getting to a certain result or finding a cure for COVID-19, or finding a better material, there is a competition. But I think getting gaining an advantage. You do that by collaborating with other world class scientists. And we have a lot of those on this campus. And right now, we can do different things with our cocrystal technology, purely because we're collaborating with soil scientists that we couldn't do before. And as a result, other groups that might be working in similar areas that were trying to do similar or related things on a fundamental level. Now as Grambling because they don't have the same sort of soil scientists working with their materials that we have. So not only is it a friendly collaboration, where we learn something and the students learn something, it does give us an advantage, a competitive advantage, I'm not gonna, I'm not gonna lie about that. That's, that's part of the equation as well, of course.
That's part of what you know, through working for the global through the Global Food Systems at Kansas State, being able to I mean, that's agriculture is one of the main areas that K State offers, I think that probably internationally, we're known, known well, for those things. And so wherever we can, we can find ways to, to build off of that, and, and take advantage of, as you said, world class research in the areas that we'll be impacting that system overall, is, is something that we want to continue doing.
Yeah, I mean, even though I have, have a relatively recently evoke an interest in, in Global Food Systems, I think having this kind of umbrella, where a lot of different scientists from different areas can meet to exchange ideas, really leverages the expertise in different departments and different colleges even in unique and highly productive ways. So of course, I'm very grateful for that. And I'm delighted to be part of those.
It's wonderful. And it's interesting that the way you and Ganga came together was so random. I'm hoping that over time, we will be able to take a little of that randomness out of the equation and find better and better ways of connecting folks together to have some discussions to see where, where, where the fit that works, or doesn't work.
Well, maybe you can design an app for how to get different faculty together.
I've got some ideas on how to do that. Let me know, I would be happy to take that on.
It's probably being licensed as we speak. I'm not quite sure if I can reveal that in public.
Yes. Just one more sort of like, big picture question, after urea, what's next? I mean, do you see yourself continuing with working with other molecules that might have applications in the food system setting? Can you imagine what that might be next? Or do you think you might go back to focus more exclusively on some of the work that's more applicable to the Cancer Center? I'm just curious, what's next?
Well, I have a relatively short attention span. So I tend operate with numerous projects all at once. So we have projects going in, that are sponsored by the Department of Defense for making more stable explosives. We are working with Yeah, I mean, that's another that's another I was not gonna say impactful because that's what we tried to minimize impact sensitivity. But we're working to improve stability of explosives. We are working with pharmaceuticals. We are working with agrochemicals sometimes it's difficult to plan ahead and I'd like this random walk through the scientific world and the real world and sometimes you just come across an opportunity to do something. Right now we are potentially looking at fragrances, which is a whole different story where we can try to control the release of fragrances in a more fashion. So there's a lot of things I mean, every time we think about how can we control or improve the physical properties of any material or any substance, we might be able to make a difference, it's just a matter of finding enough hours in the day. And it could really be that there'll be looking more closely at pesticides and herbicides, to make them more targeted, to make them more efficient. And to make them more environmentally friendly.
I can think of dozens of applications of something like this, all the way from the agronomy of the agricultural system all the way up through the finished food product, things like like flavor enhancement, or flavor compounds coming coming out at different times during the during the the eating process of things like managing the chemicals that are used to extend shelf life of products. They're just there's so many applications that something like this might fit nicely into.
Yeah, I think all you need is curiosity. Yeah.
Yeah, I think getting the Christers and the Gangas of the world to sit down and talk over a glass of wine.
You call it random, and the way that you tell the story of how you ended up in science and at Kansas State, and you know, there's there does seem to be a sense of randomness to it. But, I have to think that there isn't that not that it's preordained, or anything like that. But as you very well say it's curiosity and expressing interest in those around you, that leads us to these seemingly random discoveries. And I can't help but also observe that, you know, 10 years in your lab, developing these technologies, so that now that you've got this really strong base that can be applied in so many different places, I find that really inspiring as well. It's like, it's sort of like you have empowered curiosity. Now that's really going to help in all kinds of applications.
Yeah, I mean, I never planned to work with explosives, to work with soil scientists, or to work with agriculture, anti cancer drugs, I think you just need to listen. You just need to listen to the challenges around you and listen to the presentations that other people give and the work that other people do. And I think then you can begin to find a niche for yourself. And if you're lucky, then you find the right collaborators, and things tend to work out. But listening, I think is almost as critical as the curiosity part.
Absolutely. Do you have any questions of us there any thoughts on the program at this point?
I hope you're planning to can continue it. I think that's a request more than a question. And what do you what do you need from the projects? I mean, what would you ideally see happen with each and every single project that you fund?
Yeah, I have to go back to my funding source, which is the state of Kansas and what the status looking for is expansion of business expansion of jobs in the state, but also helping to to improve the ecological impact of the food system in the state there, you know, just all anything positive that will help move things forward within the state of Kansas. And, as you know, and you know, we've worked with groups with a Feed the Future labs and other groups, things that positively impact the state of Kansas are not just from the state of Kansas, there are there are things that are happening all over the world that researchers at the University can look at and bring back to help us better understand what's going on within our systems within the state.
Was, I think that's, I think we should try to pursue that as much as we can. Because that clearly is a real driving force for what we do here as well.
Yeah, absolutely. So and I think what you're doing, he's got a direct potential direct impact. So this is wonderful.
I was just thinking that doing podcasts like this ought to be a basic requirement. And I think it essentially is an informal sense. But in all seriousness, being able to communicate the value of this research, and the way that it happens is, I think, really important for the public to have a sense of the way that this work is done. It won't be funded by the state of Kansas, if there isn't a greater appreciation for the ways that teaching and research go together for the ways that their deputy sometimes seems to drive these innovations. I just, I really appreciate marine that we're doing this and thanks for being here, Christer. I think it's really important.
Can I just add to that as well, and since we might have listeners who are not necessarily in their labs, I think sometimes you do not have any idea if your research is going to have a real life application or not. But sometimes it happens. And I think it's therefore it's incredibly important to support fundamental research. Because you don't know in advance where those findings and those results are going to take you. And we will not improve quality of life by itself. That can only happen through sustained research efforts, driven by universities, that's where all the exciting stuff happens. And I hope that we can continue to get resources, or even more improved resources to do what we do, because ultimately, some of us will find something that will have an incredibly important impact on the lives of people in the region, or, more broadly speaking, nationally, and globally.
Could not agree more. And I'll just follow up on that quickly before we have to sign off here. But you know, the, as you know, Christer research isn't done in a bubble. So you've got I'm sure colleagues, at other universities, within the US and around the world that you work with, and collaborate with and learn from and that type of thing. And it's just so important for us to be able to do that. And these podcasts at this point in time have been picked up since we started that picked up in over 60 countries. So I'm really excited that there are people around the world that are listening and understanding and interested in what we're doing. And hopefully the you know, when there's a collaboration that makes good sense, we'll be able to facilitate some of that as well.
Yeah, I couldn't agree more. Excellent. Well, thank you so much. Christer.
Okay, well, thank you for inviting me and putting up with my analogies and otherwise attempts at explanations.
I think that that background in psychology has served you very, very well, even if it didn't happen at the graduate level. It's made you a fabulous explainer of chemistry so much appreciated.
Thank you. This has been absolutely fascinating. And it just opened so many different channels for further thoughts that I'm grateful. And I think that's one of the characteristics of good science. With this really is so thank you.
Thank you for taking the time to appreciate it.
My pleasure. Great.
All right. Thank you so much. And hope to see you all soon. Thank you. Bye bye.
If you have any questions or comments you would like to share check out our website at https://www.k-state.edu/research/global-food/ and drop us an email.
Our music was adapted from Dr. Wayne Goins’s album Chronicles of Carmela. Special thanks to him for providing that to us. Something to Chew On is produced by the Office of Research Development at Kansas State University.