May 5, 2011
By Carol Clark
"My brother liked to build models. And I liked to blow them up," recalls David Lynn, chair of chemistry department and the Asa Griggs Candler Professor of Chemistry and Biology.
Their childhood experiments led to his brother's career as a building contractor and Lynn's as a groundbreaking chemist who is not afraid to make sparks fly. "The joke in the family is, it's a good thing that we no longer collaborate," Lynn says.
Lynn received the 2011 University Scholar/Teacher Award, selected by Emory faculty on behalf of the United Methodist Church Board of Higher Education and Ministry. He was recognized for his contributions to plant chemical biology, dynamic molecular self-assembly, chemical evolution and chemical education.
Lynn's chemical interests grew beyond explosions while he was a college student in North Carolina. "One day, I walked out of an organic chemistry class and I noticed a leaf on a tree branch that was hanging over a banister," he says. "I thought, ‘That leaf is coordinating billions of reactions going on all the time.' I remember marveling at that, and I've never stopped marveling."
Test kitchen for primordial soup
That simple insight drove Lynn to focus on how order comes from chaos. After joining Emory in 2000, he 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 from Earth's primordial soup, some 3.5 billion years ago.
In 2002, he received the Howard Hughes Medical Institute award, worth $1 million. He used the funds to create a program called On Recent Discoveries by Emory Researchers (ORDER), a series of seminars where graduate students teach freshmen.
"Rather than just spending 24/7 in a lab, graduate students need to put their research into a broader context and learn to explain it to the public," Lynn says of the philosophy behind ORDER. An added benefit of the program is exposing freshmen to the possibilities of a career in academia, nurturing growth of the research community, Lynn says.
Lynn is also committed to helping the lay public understand the ongoing research into the evolution of life, and its relevance to modern-day life. Atlanta is an interesting location to focus on this goal, he says, since it is the epicenter of the debate between science and religion.
Change in a flash
"This is where the friction is, and where you have friction, that's where changes can occur," he explains.
Both religion and science strive to make sense of the world, Lynn says. Rather than reciting facts that demonstrate evolution, Lynn believes that the best way to help people understand it is through compelling stories. He has helped pioneer collaborations between Emory scientists and playwrights, dancers and other artists. The recent performances of a science flash mob in downtown Atlanta, using a group of people to show how molecules evolve, is one example of this daring convergence of science and art.
"Sixty percent of Americans don't accept the tenants of evolution because they don't see them as part of their experience," Lynn says. "So somehow we need to find ways to create space for a dialogue. If there is one lesson that emerges from the study of chemical evolution, it is that molecular diversity underpins both the structural intricacy of biology, as well as the complexity of our ideas and dreams."