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Marcus Weck

Marcus Weck

Professor of Chemistry and Associate Director of the Molecular Design Institute, New York University

By David Zierler, Director of the Caltech Heritage Project

January 23, 2024

DAVID ZIERLER: This is David Zierler, Director of the Caltech Heritage Project. It's Tuesday, January 23rd of 2024. It's my great pleasure to be here with Professor Marcus Weck. Marcus, it's wonderful to be with you. Thank you for joining me today.

MARCUS WECK: My pleasure. Looking forward to this.

ZIERLER: Marcus, to start, would you please tell me your title and institutional affiliation?

WECK: I'm Professor of Chemistry and the Associate Director of the Molecular Design Institute here at NYU in New York City. Best city in the world.

ZIERLER: [laugh] Let's start first with the Institute. How did it get started and what is its mission?

WECK: NYU, approximately 20 years ago, under the now past, past president, decided that their sciences were not up to par, with the rest of the universities, as far as numbers, accomplishments, rankings, and so on. They started what is called the Partners program to add a couple of hundred new faculty in the faculty of arts and sciences, with an emphasis on the sciences. At that point, they just didn't want to give a department here 10 new faculty lines. They decided, "We would like to see a vision. Where do we see the future in that?" At that point, in 2006, the MDI was started with the idea of bringing cutting edge materials chemistry at the intersection of chemistry and materials science to NYU. I was the second hire into this institute. It now has five faculty. It's part of the chemistry department. We collaborate extensively with people across NYU and, I would say, across the world. But in particular, there's a Center for Soft Condensed Matter and Physics. We have joint grants, joint postdocs, joint students with some of the CSMR faculty. We bring in the chemistry, the synthetic side; they bring in the physics side.

ZIERLER: Marcus, let's go now to your research. When people ask, who are non-specialists, maybe at a dinner party, "What kind of chemist are you?" what do you say?

WECK: At the end of the day, I would call myself a synthetic polymer chemist. We are making new materials. We're developing new synthetic strategies to make materials. We are trying to understand the three-dimensional structures, the architecture, and the function of these new materials. From my side, we bring in the synthetic side to a large degree, and the characterization. The application are coming mainly through collaborators, all the way from engineering to medical schools to physics.

ZIERLER: Marcus, what is the overlap, if any, between synthetic chemistry and organic chemistry?

WECK: Synthetic chemistry is pretty much the art of making molecules. These molecules can be from biological molecules. Think about DNA, RNA, peptides, enzymes, proteins, to small molecules, which is pretty much the realm of the organic chemist, to materials and polymers. My side is on the polymer side. This can be inorganic. But, to a large degree, it is mainly organic chemistry. I always describe myself as a synthetic organic chemist who works on really large molecules.

ZIERLER: Now let's move on to experimentation and theory. Is your lab purely experimental or is there a theoretical component to it?

WECK: We actually collaborate extensively with theorists. We have collaborated with theorists here at NYU as well as at Georgia Tech, my prior institution. We still have a research grant with theorists at Georgia Tech, which is now running for 20 years. We very much appreciate what theory brings to the table as far as understanding some of the experimental results we are getting, the data, to explain to us what is happening, what we are doing, what we see, but also to help us predict some of the experiments we are interested in doing. We do some very limited computations on my side. Optimizing commercial computational packages, writing new code, understanding really detailed quantum mechanical or statistical mechanical details, that's beyond what my group can do.

ZIERLER: Now, do you see any clear dividing line between polymer chemistry and materials science? Is polymer chemistry almost a subset of materials science?

WECK: I think polymer chemistry is materials science. Materials science is a very broad term. But polymer chemistry is also biochemistry, and organic chemistry and it can be inorganic chemistry. For example, if you look at people who are doing polymer physics, they can be in physics departments and in chemical engineering departments. Actually, Caltech has some of the premier polymer physicists in chemical engineering. As a student, I worked with Julia Kornfield, as an example. I think that polymer chemistry is really at the fringes of a lot of old sub-disciplines. I think you see these days in academics that these sub-disciplines really start to come apart. People are much more broadly interested, on some level, broader-minded as scientists and as personalities, to not just say, "OK, I have to do this one, which in 1950 already somebody did." Therefore, if you're not doing total synthesis, you're not really an organic chemist anymore. I think that polymer chemistry really sits at the intersection of a lot of different areas.

ZIERLER: Marcus, tell me about your work with biomaterials, and if you enjoy the term "bio-inspired science," taking inspiration from science?

WECK: A lot of things, what we are doing in my group, really tries to mimic concepts that are fairly well understood and very common in biological systems. That ranges from folding processes to compartmentalization to understanding catalysis and so on. We look at nature as really an inspiration for us to do synthetic chemistry, and to not only mimic nature in the long term; we would like to compete with nature. Nature is four billion years ahead of us. Clearly, we will not in the next four years make up some of these. But I think that chemistry and everything from materials chemistry to bioorganic chemistry, bioinorganic chemistry has come a long, long way to understanding phenomena in nature and translate them into the chemistry and materials world.

ZIERLER: Now, you mentioned four billion years. Is that to say that evolution provides guidelines for the kind of research you hope to accomplish?

WECK: Absolutely. Absolutely. We, for example, have a project for quite some time to make artificial enzymes and artificial proteins. We are not making these based on amino acids or amino acid-like structures. I would like to take your poly(styrene) cup and fold it into a three-dimensional structure that mimics a tertiary structure of an enzyme with the same kind of recognition and function an enzyme has. You might ask, "Why would you do this?" The first thing is scientific curiosity. I think that, these days, often scientific curiosity and basic sciences get a little bit of the short end when it comes to research. I think it's still important to just say, "This is an amazing phenomenon. I want to understand these phenomena." I think that's where we are looking to. The second thing is enzymes and proteins do things perfectly well, but there are some things they cannot do. Synthetic chemistry gives you a couple of options, starting from a wider monomer pool, a wider number of units you can incorporate into these structures, to something which gives you stability and the different conditions, let's say, organic solvents, let's say high temperatures, low temperatures, pressures, and so on. Could we make something which acts like an enzyme, but you can do this in an organic solvent at 200 degrees Celsius or at -100 degrees Celsius. We would like to understand how to tailor a synthetic system and how to fold a synthetic system into a well-defined three-dimensional structure, which is very prevalent and very well understood at this point in the natural and the biological world but not yet in the synthetic world.

ZIERLER: Marcus, looking at your work in nanostructures, is there a quantum mechanical component to your research?

WECK: We mainly work one order of magnitude larger than the nanostructures. We have a program where we look at colloidal structures, which are somewhere in the hundreds of nanometers to the low micron range: five microns, ten microns, like this. There's a lot of things you can learn from these materials, and one of them is you can see them with an eye, using microscopy. When you are a small molecule, there's no way you can look at a microscope and see a small molecule. You need to look at very specialized characterization methods from X-ray refraction to NMR spectroscopy, and so on. These are all, to some degree, indirect methods. Colloids, I can go to a basic light microscope or to a confocal microscope, and I can follow all their interactions, properties, reactions, whatever they do, with my eyes, I can make a movie out of them. Since they follow the same basic physical guidelines and laws as molecules, by understanding colloids, I can directly correlate how molecules would work.

Things like crystallization phenomena, self-assembly phenomena are things which are fantastic if you can look at them with your eye, and not just have to look at them afterwards. You make a crystal, and you go to the X-ray diffraction. We can now look at kinetics and dynamics of these processes. That's one of them. But then the colloidal world itself also has some really interesting properties. Things like cells are of colloidal size. Viruses are of colloidal size. Photonic band-gap materials are colloidal sized. There's a lot of, I think, important concepts, important questions out there, which the colloidal scientists can answer. This is a really interesting story because I think colloidal science started out in chemistry departments in the 1950s—'40s and '50s. Somehow, because of limitations to characterization, it really died off. It really became a reemergence in the physics and engineering community, and they have done a fantastic job in understanding this phenomenon. But if I want to make a colloid, and I want to make it functional, and I want to do some chemistry on it, I want to put some interesting groups on it, this is not something physicists and engineers are really good at. You go back to the chemists. I think the colloidal world is a lot—in particular size range where the colloidal—where the chemist can have a significant impact.

ZIERLER: Now, for all of this research, Marcus, I'm curious, what aspects are your motivations strictly in fundamental science, basic research, and where do you have applications for societal benefit really at the heart of what you're trying to accomplish?

WECK: We have worked on photonic band-gap materials, and still work on it. If you think about this, I don't think that in 20–30 years from now, your computer will be based on silicon electricity. Most likely, you will have a little laser in there, or you put a laser light on it. Optical data storage will be really critical. We are talking about optical materials, photonic band-gap materials. That's one of the things our colloidal program still works on. We work with our physics colleagues on some of these questions. We also work on a project where we try to mimic nature when it comes to compartmentalization of catalysts. What am I talking about? In you right now, there are lots of catalytic events—in each of your cells, there are a lot of catalytic processes at the same time happening. They can happen in acidic or basic conditions. They can be oxidations or reductions. If you would mix them together, that would not work, because they would neutralize each other. Now, the cool part in the cell is the cell builds a compartment, be it a Golgi or something like this, around one reaction center.

Think about the nanoreactor. The molecules can diffuse in and out, and find the catalytic site within this nanoreactor. We would like to do the same which is called cascade catalysis. We would like to do this in environmentally benign conditions, so we do this in water. We work on a system where we do two, three, four, five steps, catalytic steps in one pot in water at room temperature. Under environmentally benign conditions, we add some kind of starting material, and we get out a highly complex structure with one, two, three, four stereocenters, which otherwise would take four, five, six steps to make, with purification in each step. New solvents, organic solvents, new catalysts, we combine this all-in-one pot. We would like to do this for a wide variety of small molecules and of interesting molecules for the fine chemical and the drug industry. We actually have interactions from everything from pharma all the way to actually the oil industry, who is interested to see can we take one of the really standard starting materials, and make them, in one step, into something really interesting for drug discovery or something like this.

ZIERLER: This is—

WECK: Another project we work on is, for the past 10–15 years, is tissue engineering, and delivery agents. We have collaborated with colleagues here at NYU in the med school with colleagues where I was before, Georgia Tech, in biomedical engineering. I actually have a colleague in Italy who is an antiviral chemist. We are looking at delivery agents for antivirals as well as for anticancer drugs. I think we have some applications in sight. Sometimes these applications drive our research, but I don't think that our research is only application driven. There is some very fundamental basic science, which is beyond and behind each one of these projects.

ZIERLER: It sounds, Marcus, like you're even contributing, broadly conceived, to sustainability efforts as well.

WECK: Absolutely. Absolutely. We actually just submitted a proposal on sustainability. Absolutely.

ZIERLER: Where do you see that being—?

WECK: Energy sustainability is something we have played a role in for quite some time.

ZIERLER: Where do you see specifically, within climate change, for example, where does your work play a role?

WECK: We have worked on polymers from renewable resources, for example, and we have worked on poly(lactic acid). It's one of the very common polymers. If you think about dissolvable sutures—lots of people can relate to them—they're based on poly(lactic acid). It degrades in your body over time, over a couple of weeks, or depending what they use. Therefore, I'm old enough that if I had surgery 40 years ago, somebody would afterwards take out the sutures. These days, they just stay in, and they dissolve over time. That's one of the things. But our catalysis program really comes in in lower energy use, and in less toxic chemical use. We clearly do not heat up our system. We clearly do not need energy for purification. We don't need energy for really dissolving things. We do not need organic solvents. We remove all kinds of toxic chemicals. We start with something, and three, four steps later, we get something new out. Now, don't get me wrong. The compartments we are making, the polymers at this point are not from sustainable polymer systems. That is something we would like to do, where we would like to be. That is not where we are at this point, so they are still something where we have to go.

ZIERLER: Marcus, I wonder if your research has gotten more computational over the years, and if you've embraced some of the recent advances in machine learning and AI?

WECK: We have not worked with AI or machine learning. We have contacted and interacted with colleagues who are working on it. We just submitted a proposal—we still have January, yes—last month, in December, to the Department of Energy, which has a significant machine learning component to it. We think that some of our compartments, for example, the optimization could be predicted using machine learning. But, again, we would collaborate with somebody. That is nothing I would do in my group, or we can do. I have a 10-and a 12-year-old. My 12-year-old always makes fun, because I still type with two fingers.

ZIERLER: [laugh]

WECK: He's like, "Dad, how can you type with two fingers?"

ZIERLER: [laugh]

WECK: I'm like, "I'm pretty fast with it." I still write fast. But technology is not my friend, I have to say.

ZIERLER: Marcus, let's take a verbal tour of your lab. What does it look like? What are the most important instruments?

WECK: We're actually in a synthetic lab. I have a basic synthetic outfit. That means I have 12 hoods, which all have one or two students and postdocs working in them. Each hood also has something which is called a Schlenk line, so we can work under inert conditions. If a reaction needs to be oxygen free and has to run under argon and nitrogen, we can do this. We have glove boxes, so we can actually work under pure nitrogen atmospheres. Then if you look at the other part of my lab, I have an instrumentation room where we have basic polymer characterization instruments, things like size-exclusion chromatography, differential scanning colorimetry, thermogravimetric analysis, some UV with some fluorescence, some atomic force microscopes. These are our standard instruments we use every day. If we start characterizing our raw materials properties, then we go to the shared instrumentation facilities, where there's small and wide angle X-ray diffraction, single crystal X-ray diffraction, electron microscope, so SEM and TEMs. We work extensively with mass spectrometry. We also look at binding constants between polymers and so on, using 600- and 800-megahertz NMR spectrometers. We interact a lot with collaborators and use instruments of my colleagues.

ZIERLER: Now, in terms of the multidisciplinary collaborations that you have, what are some of the unique capabilities of your lab where others come in to use what you have?

WECK: I would say the main is our expertise in polymer chemistry. In contrast to a lot of other groups, I am not focused on one polymerization method or one polymer in specific. What we are really good at is looking at a problem, dissecting this problem, looking what kind of polymeric materials is needed. What solves the problem? Then asking us, "How do we make these polymer materials with the highest degree of control one can have?" We use what is called the living polymerization for most of our research, and these living polymerizations span all the polymerization methods. We do ring-opening metathesis polymerization, which was spearheaded for the last 30 - 40 years by my PhD advisor, who unfortunately passed away two and a half years ago. That's one of the main go-to methods we have. But we use also controlled living radical polymerizations. We used living anionic polymerizations. We used other metal-catalyzed polymerizations. For example, we are making poly(isocyanide)s using a nickel-based system. But for this one problem we are tackling what is the best system out there. This was the best polymer. That's what my group brings to the table.

ZIERLER: Marcus, let's go back now, and establish some personal history. Tell me about your education in Germany before you got to Caltech.

WECK: I started at the University of Mainz, my undergrad degree. That was at a time where there was no bachelor or master. You did what is called a diploma.

ZIERLER: Now are you from Mainz?

WECK: Actually, I was born in Berlin. In my age, that was West Berlin at that point. I was born in Kreuzberg. My dad did his college in Berlin. Once he got a job, we moved to West Germany, and I grew up close to Wiesbaden; either in Wiesbaden or close to Wiesbaden. Wiesbaden is across the Rhine River from Mainz. It's like five miles from city center Wiesbaden to city center Mainz. They are approximately the same size cities. They have around 250,000 people, each one of them. They're old cities. Mainz was established as the Romans had a legion stationed there, so it's 2000 years old. It's quite an old city. I started in 1988, no, '89 at the University of Mainz, and I did my diploma in 1994.

ZIERLER: Marcus, I can't help but ask, starting in 1989, what was it like when the Berlin Wall came down?

WECK: Oh, it was crazy. I am one of the people in Germany who had family both in East and West Berlin. My mom's family, two of her brothers were in West Berlin or West Germany, and two of her brothers were in East Germany. We visited East Germany because her parents or her mom lived still there. We went every year for a week or two to East Germany to see family. For us, it was a very emotional time when the wall came down, and it was something very unique. My mom grew up in Berlin, and so when the wall came down, she said, "OK, I see the rest of the family. I have to go to Berlin. I have to be in the center of Germany." When the wall came down, for her, it was a very, very emotional time. It was a big deal in Germany. I think it was a big deal for the world. But I think for Germans in particular, it was something very unique, and it was an incredible time to be in Germany.

ZIERLER: Now, when you started university, was it always chemistry? Is that what you always wanted to do?

WECK: It was always chemistry, and so I started out in chemistry. In Germany at that point, if you did a diploma, you didn't really do what is now in the United States very common. It's not that you study half of your credits in chemistry, and then you do a little bit of language, and a little bit of—I don't know—English literature, and a little bit of arts, and you have some core classes in this and that. You do chemistry, a little bit of physics, and a little bit of math, and that's it. I did for the five years chemistry. The unique thing, and that is how I started in the United States, was that I did an exchange program at UC, Irvine. The University of Mainz had an exchange program funded by the German government to send 20 students every year to Canada, Japan, or the United States. It was UMass Amherst, UC Santa Barbara, UC Irvine, Toronto, and Kyoto. I was one of five Germans who, in their third year, went to UC Irvine. We lived in Newport Beach in a beach house for nine months, five Germans together. We started exploring science in the United States. I fell in love with California at that point. I went back, I did my diploma, and I actually went to my diploma advisor, his name is Ringsdorf. He is a very eminent and very famous polymer chemist in Germany. He's now in his 90s; retired for a long time. I'm like, "Mr. Ringsdorf, I would like to go back to California." He's like, "OK, Marcus, let me make some phone calls." He made some phone calls, and I applied to Caltech, and I received an email two weeks later that I'm admitted to Caltech.

ZIERLER: Now, what was his connection to Caltech? Did he have collaborators here?

WECK: I think that he is one of the really old famous polymer people. He knew Bob Grubbs, and he knew Peter Dervan, because they had very strong supramolecular side. He knew Harry Gray and Jackie Barton. I think that, at that point, you met at meetings, and you knew each other. He won the ACS award in polymer science the year before I moved over there. He's like, "OK, let me make some calls."

ZIERLER: You said he was famous. What was he known for? What was his research?

WECK: He was a polymer chemist. He had a lot of different emphases, from liquid crystalline materials, to biomaterials, to surfaces, biosurfaces, to understanding supramolecular interactions, to physical organic chemistry.

ZIERLER: Tell me about arriving at Caltech. What was that like for you?

WECK: It was crazy, because of my diploma. I defended my diploma in November. As you know, Caltech has quarters, and starts in September. I didn't want to wait until the next year September. Actually, at that point, Peter Dervan wrote an email and said, "You can come for January 1." On the 25th of December, I took a plane to LA. I arrived in Los Angeles. I looked for an apartment or for a place to stay. On January 2nd, I showed up at Caltech, and I'm like, "Hello, I'm the German guy. I'm the new student here."

ZIERLER: [laugh]

WECK: I have to say that the admissions office, the general office knew exactly who I was. They're like, "Oh, you're Marcus. We expected you." It was unique. I think Caltech is a very, very unique place, as I think most people who went to Caltech can probably tell you about. It is like a research institution. It doesn't feel like a college. It doesn't feel like a university. It feels like here cutting-edge research is being carried out. I arrived, and I was amazed. I'd never visited Caltech before. I actually went to my classes, and I got a TA position. I was in the organic chemistry teaching labs, and third or fourth day, I went to Bob Grubbs, and I said, "Professor Dr. Grubbs. As a good German, you would never say "Bob" to Bob.

ZIERLER: [laugh]

WECK: You would say, "Herr Professor Doctor."

ZIERLER: [laugh]

WECK: "You're Herr Professor Dr. Grubbs. My name is Marcus Weck. I know Mr. Ringsdorf talked to you. I would like to join your lab." Bob looks at me. He's like, "Who are you?"

ZIERLER: [laugh]

WECK: Then he's like, "I already took five people. I don't think I can take you." I'm like, "Oh, OK." I went back. I looked at some of his papers more. I get back the next day, and I'm like, "Herr Professor Dr. Grubbs, I really think you should take me." He at that point said, "Oh, I guess you are insistent. Sure. Why don't you join the group?" That's how it started.

ZIERLER: Marcus, coming from the German system where you had more focus earlier on than what happens for undergraduates in the United States, did you feel pretty well prepared relative to your fellow students? Did you feel farther along than students who had come out of the American system?

WECK: Yes and no. I think where I was significantly further along was in my hands-on experimental research skills. I did already a year of research. In the German system at that time, you did four, five, six hours of lab-related courses every second day. My organic chemistry lab was like 10 hours a week. I actually took an educational lab in polymer chemistry, and I took one in analytical, two in inorganic, and so I came very well prepared, yes. I knew how to do research. I jumped in, and I was doing research in week two, starting in the grad school, and I knew what I was doing. Where I was not as well prepared was in lectures. I think that a lot of the German lectures are prepare by people prepare when they start out with 32, and the lecture is the same when they retire with 67. I remember I was in inorganic chemistry, and I never heard about organometallic chemistry. There was no catalysis; it didn't exist. Now, interestingly, Germany was one of the premier organometallic places in the '70s and '80s. There were multiple people who won Nobel Prizes in the field of transition metal chemistry and other things. But the person who taught me inorganic chemistry was in his late '70s. One of these books back there, which was written in 1964, that was the book he was using. That's pretty much where inorganic chemistry stopped. When I started taking credit classes at Caltech, I took one with Andy Meyers and with John Bercaw, and I heard about things which I never heard about before. To be honest, the expectations were also like wow. Andy gave you—"Here's a sheet of 50 reactions. It's not that I teach them to you. You just know them by next week Monday, because I expect them." These were all name reactions, and that went every week like this. I think the level of what you were expected to do for a class was significantly different than what you would do in Germany. I would say, looking back, my theoretical knowledge of chemistry and the lectures were solid, but probably not as strong as where you were at a place like Caltech. On the other hand, my hands-on and experimental knowledge was probably better than the average chemist, first-year graduate student coming into Caltech from another place.

ZIERLER: Let's return to that second discussion with Herr Professor Dr. Grubbs. What did he say when you urged him to reconsider?

WECK: I think initially he was a little bit annoyed. Linda was Bob's administrator for as long as I know Bob. Linda told me, "I'm not sure he's in the best mood. I'm not sure you want to go in there today." But I just went. Bob was like, "It's OK. I accept you in the group." He's looking at me, and he's like, "I don't have time right now. Talk to Coates. He will give you a project." That was Geoff Coates, who is now an endowed chair at Cornell. I went to Geoff, and I'm like, "Hey, Geoff." He looks at me, and he's like, "Who are you?" I'm like, "I just came from Professor Grubbs' office. I'm the new first-year grad student, and he told me, 'Talk to Coates, and then start working with Coates.'" I started working with Geoff Coates. [laugh]

ZIERLER: [laugh] Now, you were focused on polymer chemistry. That's what you came to Caltech to do.

WECK: In Bob's lab, I did mainly polymer chemistry. I was always very collaborative, I have to say. I arrived in Bob's lab in January '95. At that point, Bob's group had a lot of students and postdocs, and not a lot of hoods so I shared a hood with a person called Peter Schwab, who was German, by pure accident. He made the famous first-generation Grubbs catalyst. Actually, in the Grubbs group, it was called Peter's catalyst because he made it. He was the first one to make it. He at one point said, "Marcus, we work together. We're making some catalyst, and then we make some polymers out of them. What do you think?" My first paper actually is a half catalysis, half polymer paper, where Peter is on. He really taught me about the catalyst, how to mix the catalyst, what to look for, how to characterize the catalyst. He taught me the tricks of the trade.

ZIERLER: To clarify, Geoff Coates was a postdoc in the Grubbs lab?

WECK: Geoff Coates was a postdoc. Peter Schwab was a postdoc. At that point, the Grubbs group, was 50:50 graduate students and postdocs. There is one thing which I think people never realized about Bob, and I don't know how Bob really did this, but Bob was able to attract an amazing group. If I look at the people who, when I was in Bob's lab, are now in academics, and leaders in their field, from Geoff Coates, who is probably one of the top two or three people in renewable polymers, to Melanie Sanford, who is one of the premier catalyst people in the world, who's at Michigan, to Scott Miller, who was chair at Yale until very recently, so you had some fantastic people there. What Bob did give you, Bob always gave you the freedom to find your interest, as long as it involves olefin metathesis, and run with it. Bob would never go to you and say, "Marcus, you need to work today on this." This is what I still do in my research group. I am what Bob was—and same for me—what I would call a hands-off advisor. I'm not telling my students on a daily or even weekly basis, "You're making this molecule or this polymer, or you characterize that, or you do this self-assembly." I expect my students and my postdocs to run with their project. If there are some major problems, they are always welcome to come. But I want them to develop their creativity, their intuition.

ZIERLER: Now, was the work that the Grubbs lab was doing at the point you joined related to what he eventually won the Nobel Prize in?

WECK: Oh, absolutely. I don't think that the Nobel Prize in olefin metathesis would have been possible without what is today called the Grubbs catalyst. That is because I think that Chauvin and Dick Schrock did immensely important research when it comes to olefin metathesis and really groundbreaking research. But with a tungsten and molybdenum catalyst they are so air sensitive. The broad appeal of olefin metathesis came with the ruthenium catalyst, which you can throw in water and it still works. I think that having this incredibly useful catalyst, which everybody can (a) purchase and (b) use, is key. While I was still at Caltech, they started using the Grubbs catalyst in the second semester undergrad labs at Caltech. I introduced an experiment at Georgia Tech when I was a faculty member there. We even do this now with high school and middle school students. We are talking about a catalyst, which really, on some level, is fairly idiot-proof. Without this possibility that everybody in the world can now do olefin metathesis, I don't think the Nobel Prize would have been possible. While I was there, SonBinh and Laura were instrumental in making the very first ruthenium catalyst. But what is now called Grubbs 1 and Grubbs Second Generation Catalyst were developed while I was a grad student in the Grubbs lab, and so I think that is critical.

ZIERLER: Tell me about the Grubbs catalyst. Why was it so revolutionary? What did it improve upon?

WECK: Pretty much, the Grubbs catalyst can handle any functional group that there is. If you want to make a carbon-carbon connection using olefin metathesis, before the Grubbs catalyst, Bob and Dick Schrock both worked on titanium, molybdenum, and tungsten catalyst, and they worked really well. They did their job. But the moment they saw a number of different functional groups—and that can be an alcohol, an acid—they would die. They could not handle these functional groups. The reason was just the functional groups were a fantastic ligand for the metal, and you wouldn't get them off again, and so they would not turn over. The ruthenium, the further you go to later transition metals, the more function group tolerant they become. The Grubbs catalyst was something which can be made really easily, fairly cheap, can be used under any condition, and, unless you have a thiol, can be pretty much as function-group-tolerant for anything that is out there. That opened really the possibility of what is now famously called ring-closing metathesis, meaning, people in the pharma and the organic chemistry community were able to use the olefin metathesis catalyst.

A lot of the drugs have extensive functional groups. They would not handle the molybdenum or tungsten. The materials community is exactly the same. A lot of the polymers we are working with have extensive functional groups that can be an anticancer drug, that can be a recognition site for cancer, that can be a recognition site for viral protein. All of these are functional groups which would not be able to handle before the Grubbs catalyst was developed. Bob was able to, or the Grubbs group was able to provide this catalyst to everybody in the world, anybody who wanted it. Bob started a start-up company and, sure enough, sold the catalyst, which makes absolutely sense. But, realistically, for the first couple of years, we had somebody making a kilogram of this catalyst in a scale-up lab in the bottom of the Beckman Institute. Then if you would like to use it, Bob was like, "OK, here." For example, I worked with a friend of mine who was in Jean-Pierre Sauvage's lab. Jean-Pierre won the Nobel Prize for molecular motors in 2016. He's famous for what is called a catenane, which is two interlocked rings. Think about chain mail or a necklace, a chain necklace. In the old days, Jean-Pierre would make catenanes in very low yields. We would make them with olefin metathesis. We used the Grubbs catalyst to do ring-closing metathesis step at the end. At that point, when we published this paper in Angewandte Chemie, it was the largest ring ever made using ring-closing metathesis. I think it was just broadly useful. People can use it in a biological system. Chemical biologists were using the olefin metathesis. Carolyn Bertozzi or Laura Kiessling, people who are now spearheading the chemical biology community, used olefin metathesis and used the Grubbs catalyst.

ZIERLER: You mentioned chemical biology. Peter Dervan's lab was really ramping up in this area. Do you remember interactions between the Dervan lab and the Grubbs lab, what Bob Grubbs might have made possible in chemical biology?

WECK: I don't think Bob collaborated a lot with Peter. We collaborated with Dennis Dougherty's lab. We collaborated with multiple people in engineering, chemical engineering in particular. I did not do it, but Bob collaborated also with Nate Lewis. He collaborated with Laura Kiessling, who's now at MIT , and was at that point in Wisconsin. I think there were quite a number of groups and people he worked with. But in typical Bob manner, you had to initiate it as a student or as a postdoc. At one point, I started working on polymerizing off surfaces. I made a gold surface, and I wanted to make a polymer growing off the surface. I put a catalyst on there, I grew my polymer, and then I realized I have no idea how to characterize it. I went to a meeting, and I heard a talk by Paul Weiss who was at that point at Penn State. I'm like, "This sounds really interesting." I went to Bob, and I'm like, "Bob, do you think we can collaborate with this person?" He's like, "Sure. You can email Paul. Let's see if Paul Weiss will say yes." I emailed Paul. I think I was a third-year grad student. In Germany, no faculty member would write back if a third-year grad student writes you. I'm like, "Dear Professor Weiss, would you be interested?" I get an email back from Paul saying, "You can come next week. Just fly into Penn State. Bring your material. We will do it with you for two, three weeks." I stayed for three weeks at Penn State, and we got two papers out of this. Paul is still a good friend of mine. But it was initiated by me; not by Bob.

ZIERLER: Tell me about how all of this work ultimately informed your dissertation, your thesis research.

WECK: I think that everything which I did has a combination of polymer chemistry and self-assembly in it. I made liquid crystal polymers, and they assemble and give you a liquid crystalline phase. I made ring structure, which assemble into catenanes. I grew polymers off surfaces where the catalyst assembles on the surface, and then you can polymerize. I think the supramolecular components go through all of my work in Bob's lab. I actually don't remember the title of my thesis, but I'm pretty sure it has something with supramolecular polymers in it.

ZIERLER: Now, you mentioned Bob's start-up. Was he already realizing when you were in the lab that this had business applications?

WECK: Pretty much. The moment Peter made the catalyst, everybody realized what Bob had. I think the moment Peter made the catalyst and gave his group meeting where he's like, "I can make this catalyst and I can make this in two days on a kilogram scale, and I can use it in water," everybody knew this is a game-changer, and so absolutely, yes.

ZIERLER: Was his lab a pipeline for students to go into his company? Did you ever consider that?

WECK: He started his company with one of his former postdocs, Mike Giardello. There were some Grubbs members going into the company, but I don't think it was an automatic pipeline to get there. It might have been in later stages. I really don't know how Materia is these days and how many Grubbs people ended up in Materia. For me, for the longest time, I always thought I would go back to Germany. I thought I would go back to Germany, go into industry. I grew up, as I said, in Wiesbaden very close to Hoechst and BASF. BASF, the world's largest chemical company, is 100 miles away. Hoechst, which at that point was the second-largest chemical company in the world, before it got hacked into pieces, was 20 miles away. There was a pipeline from people in Mainz directly going to Hoechst and to BASF. Ringsdorf had fantastic connections, and I thought I will always go back. At that time at Caltech, you worked hard. There was one Christmas Day—I remember this—it was Christmas Day '97, the 25th of December, and Bob was in. I don't know if anybody ever told you this, but the Grubbs family was incredibly welcoming to their group members, his group members.

They realized that he has such an international group that most group members who were international probably don't go home for Christmas. On Christmas Day, Bob and Helen and the kids always welcomed whoever was ‘left' behind. In 1997, I'm pretty sure what happened was that Helen kicked out Bob, and said, "Go to work. We have to prepare the house for the big party." I was working, and so Bob came in, he sat at my desk, and we were just talking for an hour. I was doing research, and he was sitting at my desk. He probably was bored by himself in the office. At one point, Bob was like, "Just to let you know, Marcus, you will go into academics." I'm like, "OK, Bob. I didn't think I wanted to." He's like, "I think you will go into academics. Why don't you, by next week, give me two names of potential postdoc advisors you would like to work for." I'm like, "If Bob Grubbs thinks I'm good enough for academics, I probably should give it a try."

ZIERLER: That's how you thought of it, or he thought of it, that there was a hierarchy? You had to be good enough to go into academics?

WECK: No, I don't think so. But I saw how much Bob worked. I saw how much people at Caltech worked. I also saw how smart Geoff Coates, Scott Miller, Mark Hillmyer, all these people from the Grubbs who went into academics. I'm like, "I'm not as good as they are. I don't think I will ever make it." I thought, if I go back to Germany, I'll probably go into industry, because that's where 99% of all chemists in Germany go. It's not that they don't want to go into academics; there are not so many positions in Germany. When Bob said, "You're good enough for academics, why don't you try academics?" I'm like, "OK, I guess I will try academics." I got back to Bob, and I gave him three names. He discussed the names with me, and he gave me his personal opinion. I gave him the ranking of the three names. To be honest, he's like, "Why don't you email your application to your highest-ranked person, and I will contact that person."

ZIERLER: Now, before we get to the postdoc, tell me about the thesis. First, who was on your committee besides Bob?

WECK: Who was on the committee? Harry Gray was the chair of my committee. Harry is a fantastic scientist, but he's also a fantastic human being.

ZIERLER: That's right.

WECK: I think the Beckman Institute social hour were the highlights of everybody who was at Caltech. It's a funny story, because you have your qualifying exam at Caltech, as in most universities' PhD programs. Caltech, I don't know if it's still there, but in the summer, they have the baseball leagues. The Grubbs group was always in the D league, which is the drinking league. That means you have a baseball bat in one hand, and you have your beer in the other one; as was the Gray group. But the one game which was always competitive was when Bob and Harry showed up, and the Gray group was playing the Grubbs group. I remember that we beat the Gray group in '96 when I came up for my qualifying exam. It was 13 to 12 or something like this. I'm German. I'm the worst baseball player in the world. If I hit the ball one time, I was proud of myself. But we beat the Gray group — we beat Harry. Three days later, I have my qualifying exam. I remember I get in, and Harry looks at me. He's like, "Marcus, let's see how good you are really after beating the Gray group." I thought, oh my God, that's the end of my time [laugh] at Caltech. Harry was on it. Peter Dervan was on it. Erick Carreira was on it. At one point, Dennis Dougherty was on it, because Erick left and moved to ETH, and so then Dennis came on board.

ZIERLER: What were the main conclusions of your thesis?

WECK: The main conclusions of the thesis is that olefin metathesis makes fantastic polymers that can self-assemble, and can make interesting three-dimensional architectures and structures for a number of different applications.

ZIERLER: Now, the postdoc, did you line up in terms of the ranking? Did you go where you wanted to go most?

WECK: Yes, I did. I met George Whitesides when I still was in Germany. Helmut Ringsdorf, as I said, was really famous in polymer chemistry and in supramolecular chemistry. He had a conference called One Hundred Years Lock-and-Key Principle. Emil Fischer in 1894 published a paper that said that enzymes' active sites are like a lock and key. The compound is the key. The enzyme active site is the lock. The key goes in, something turns, and you spit out the key. That's called the lock-and-key principle. Ringsdorf had for this 100-year conference on the lock-and-key principle with 100 faculty scientists from all over the world. One of them, George Whitesides, was invited, and so George was there. Actually, Ringsdorf said, you know, so there were a couple of Nobel Laureates and some others high profile scientists. Ringsdorf assigned a student and a postdoc to each of the big shots. He's like, "Your job is for the next five days to make sure what this person needs this person gets. If it's a printer, if it's transparencies"—at that point, there was no PowerPoint. There was no screens. You had real slides or transparencies. "If he or she needs new slides, you make them." I was assigned to George. George is an incredibly amazing scientist, and I have never seen a scientist as broad educated, interest, and knowledgeable as George Whitesides. You talk to George about any science, and he gives you amazing suggestions. I'm like, "I would love to work for this guy at one point, because I imagine that you're doing really cool science with him." That is how it actually ended up, how I ended up at George's lab.

ZIERLER: Now, did you know that he was a fellow Caltech alum? Did you ever talk about his time at Caltech?

WECK: I do, because I took a class with Jack Roberts who is George's PhD advisor. I took an NMR class with him. He actually talked about George now and then, because he talked about the experiments George did using NMR spectroscopy during his time as a graduate student. A Whitesides paper came up a couple of times, and so I knew that George worked for Jack Roberts.

ZIERLER: What aspects of your postdoc did you see as a continuation of what you were doing with Bob, and what was brand new?

WECK: I think that what goes through my whole career is the self-assembly supramolecular component. I did this also with George. I didn't do any synthetic chemistry with George, or very, very limited. I didn't do any polymer chemistry with George. There was a lot of new experiments, new ideas, new areas to explore, and I think that is what makes postdoc unique. You don't want to do a postdoc where you just do a continuation of what you have done before. A postdoc is a time where you can explore and be creative and try new things. They might work; they might not work. But you have two, three years' time to do—if you have a good postdoc advisor—to do whatever you want as long as you provide publications.

ZIERLER: Marcus, I'm sure you've thought about this, but working with Bob Grubbs and then George Whitesides, some of the greatest chemists of their generations, I wonder if you feel a sense of luck, and what you learned from their different approaches to chemistry?

ZIERLER: I think I was incredibly lucky. I think all three people I worked for have been instrumental in my career. Also, of my personal advances, I think as a person, as a manager, as a mentor, as an advisor, I catch myself doing things which either Bob did or George did. I remember as a student there were moments where I though, "Oh my god, that's terrible." Now you totally see why they do this, how it makes sense, and what their reasoning behind some of these things were. Yeah, I was incredibly lucky. I think that the hands-off advising, which Bob had, was critical for me. The way how George runs his group, as far as interacting with students, writing publications, thinking creatively, and being open to whatever is out there, if somebody comes with a crazy idea, George will say, "I'll find money to do this. I don't know where, but why don't you start doing it? I will find a way to fund this."

ZIERLER: Now, of course, you just alluded to it, the Whitesides group is incredibly diverse in the kind of chemistry that it does. What new chemistry were you exposed to at Harvard?

WECK: I think that George is probably with two or three other groups in the world—Bob Langer probably comes to mind at MIT—but I think George created a research group which had engineers, mathematicians, physicists, doctors who went to med schools, and chemists of all areas. I think that when I was there, George probably had 50, 55, 60 members in the group. I would say there were less than 10 organic chemists in this whole group. The possibility to interact with a biomedical engineer, a mathematician, and somebody who got a PhD in quantum physics, and you come up with projects or with ideas. What you really learn is to talk about science to members of different communities. Different communities have different languages for the same science. If you think about this, if you think about energy, I talk about kcals per mole. Other people talk about kilojoules per mole. Other people talk about electronvolts. But, at the end of the day, it's all the same. Being able to relate your expertise to somebody who's an MD in a med school is really critical to collaborate with them. If you just expect them to learn your side of the story only, and your language, it will not work. George really was able to create a group that is so interdisciplinary and so collaborative that really allowed to tackle problems which are way beyond chemistry. I don't think that the Whitesides group is a chemistry group. The Whitesides group is a science group in the broader sense. George has published papers in math journals. I don't think a lot of chemistry faculty can say they have done this, unless they're in theoretical chemistry. One thing which is very unique with George is that he every 10 years, 5 years, just decides he's bored with what he has done at this point, and he just changes his whole group. When he started out, he did some total synthesis at one point, which people never realize. He did some organometallic catalysis, transition-metal chemistry. He did some bioorganic chemistry. He did surface science. He did soft robotics. He did mesoscale self-assembly. There's a lot of different science he did, and only half of them is probably what people would consider chemistry. The other half is what George considered important and interesting science and phenomena.

ZIERLER: When did you go on the job market and, at this point, were you convinced to stay in the United States?

WECK: Yes, I was convinced to stay in the United States. That is an easy answer. I went in the job market in the fall-winter of 1999, 2000. I had no idea if I would get a job and where I would get a job. The reason is that with me, there were eight more postdocs from the Whitesides lab going on the job market. In Bob's lab, there were another five to ten people. There were a lot of people with intersecting interests and capabilities and pedigree. I was not sure if I end up in academics or where I would end up. I send out applications, and it worked perfectly well.

ZIERLER: Where did you get a job? Where did you end up?

WECK: I ended up at Georgia Tech, Georgia Institute of Technology, in the chemistry department. It is a department which, because it's an engineering school, it's really close to my heart. The engineers run the place there. We always call it that engineering is a 800-pound gorilla because it has 800 faculty, and the sciences had another 150 or something like this. But it is, again, a place which loves collaboration, and which loves materials, because a lot of the engineers require materials for a number of different applications. That allowed me to go on with my interest in collaborations and collaborative science. A very good friend of mine, Chris Jones, who is the chair of chemical engineering at Georgia Tech, is an alum of Caltech. He was in Mark Davis's lab at Caltech for his PhD and then was a postdoc in John Bercaw's lab. I knew Chris from our time together at Caltech because I needed to use powder X-ray diffraction, and he was in charge of the instrument in the Davis group. We interacted at that point. During the new faculty orientation at Georgia Tech, he sat next to me. I'm like, "I think I know you." For the first four or five years of our independent careers, we had joint group meetings and partially joint projects. The Caltech connection still kept going, and Chris and I still do that to this day and still have a joint grant.

ZIERLER: Tell me about chemistry at Georgia Tech. What is its history, and what are its areas of strength?

WECK: I think that when I was there, the real areas of strengths were in the materials area that includes polymers. There were multiple synthetic polymer chemists besides me. In the general nano area, there were also quite a number of people. Their physical chemistry was very strong and they started to get strengths in biochemistry. At that point, there was really nobody in doing middle of the road synthetic organic chemistry, making small molecules or total synthesis. Mostafa El-Sayed probably was the person who really put Georgia Tech on the map. He moved there in his early 60s from UCLA, and he really was like the godfather of the department at Georgia Tech. He created an immensely successful department. I was assistant professor number 14 when I showed up there. We had a tight community between the assistant professors. I was quite happy at Georgia Tech.

ZIERLER: Tell me about setting up the lab. What were the big research questions you wanted to pursue?

WECK: When I set up the lab, I wanted to understand how I can functionalize polymers with more than one functionality at any given time in a really fast and combinatorial manner. I want to make interesting material like this. I don't want to resynthesize monomers from scratch every single time. At that point, I started working on polymers that had either non-covalent or covalent anchors, if you want to call this. I tried to understand how to control which function goes to which anchor, and how fast, and in what yield.

ZIERLER: Tell me about recruiting students and building up your lab.

WECK: I think I never had problems recruiting students. It might be my German accent. My first year, I took four students. My second year, I took two students. My third year, I took again four students, and had two or three postdocs. Pretty much since then, I've never had less than 10 students. My lab has always been between 10 and 15–20 since then.

ZIERLER: You were happy at Georgia Tech?

WECK: I was happy at Georgia Tech. Actually, if Georgia Tech would be in a different city, I might still be at Georgia Tech.

ZIERLER: Tell me about the circumstances of you coming to NYU.

WECK: I'm a big city person. On some level, being from Berlin, and living in LA for some time—I mean, Pasadena is part of LA, at the end of the day—I clearly wanted to go back to a city where I have the possibilities of a social life, which I didn't have at that point in Atlanta. That is not that I don't work a lot. But if a Wagner opera comes, and the Met is open, and there are still tickets, and I decide at 7 p.m. I want to go, I go on the subway, and at 7.45 I'm going in and listening to Die Walküre. I love this kind of city life that I have options here, which probably you don't have in a lot of other places. At that point, I decided to test the water. Is there any interest from places at other larger cities? I negotiated and interacted with two universities in larger cities, and I ended up at NYU.

ZIERLER: Now, the institute that was up and running, were you part of the inaugural faculty recruits for this at NYU?

WECK: Oh yes, that and actually in general. When I came to NYU, NYU only had 14 research-active faculty. We are now up to 29. There was a commitment by the university to really expand this department. On some level, I am a builder. I build molecules, and I also love to build departments when it comes to this. I took this as a challenge. I think I was one of the faculty who was very much involved in hiring new faculty, bringing in new faculty, building the department, building strengths in chemistry. NYU's chemistry department has gone up through the ranks. I think that was something which was very much interesting to me.

ZIERLER: Did you bring graduate students with you? Did you basically move your entire lab?

WECK: I left seven group members behind, and I took six group members with me. For one year, every month I went for five days back to Atlanta and interacted with my group. Every three months, either my New York group went for a couple of days to Atlanta, or my Atlanta group came for a couple of days to New York City. I want to make sure that the group still has group interactions, a group feeling, a unique group culture.

ZIERLER: Now, switching universities, coming to NYU, building up a new lab, did that change your research at all? Was it an opportunity for you to branch out?

WECK: Yes. I left several research projects behind. Before, I worked on electronic materials, which I haven't done for quite some time. I might start again. I submitted a proposal to this right now. I started new projects. For example, the colloid project I mentioned before, I started with a colleague in physics, Dave Pine. Absolutely, I think that your environment where you are has an impact on your research, the research possibilities, and the research questions you are tackeling. At Georgia Tech, for example, having a biomedical engineering department was fantastic. I interacted with people in the biomedical engineering department, and we were making polymers for tissue engineering. I have not done this since I left Atlanta and moved to New York. On the other hand, I started to work on antiviral deliveries, which I didn't do at Georgia Tech. Yes, I changed significant programs and projects.

ZIERLER: Now, this initiative, this broader initiative to enhance the sciences at NYU, have you seen this come to fruition in real time? Has this been happening since you've been at NYU?

WECK: Yes. As I said, we pretty much doubled the faculty. But, even more important, we nearly trebled the space. I'm in a big fishbowl, I always say, because I have a huge class, and my students always see if I'm in or not. When I had my first little troublemaker 12 years ago, I had a travel crib there. He was standing there, and always looking outside, and checking out my research group. This research lab is the very first lab of the new generation of labs at NYU, and it opened in 2007. Since then, the complete department has totally new research lab space. On top of this, we expanded the department by a 100,000 square feet. Yes, there has been quite a commitment by the university to enhance and advance the sciences in general. Physics moved into totally new building at NYU and was expanded by 20 faculty. Biology moved into a new building over the last 10 years. If you look at this, the sciences really have expanded, and received significant support from the university.

ZIERLER: Have you taken advantage, going back to the first part of our conversation where we were covering all of the different ways that polymer chemistry can be applied to materials science, to biology, to societal applications, does this really blossom for you at NYU? Were you starting to get into this at Georgia Tech?

WECK: There are two differences between Georgia Tech and NYU. The first one is that NYU is a university which has everything. I was on the promotion and tenure committee for four years, and so I looked at the tenure cases from the humanities, social sciences, and sciences. You get a very different perspective when you have colleagues from a very diverse area compared to if you're just at Georgia Tech or at Caltech, where it's just engineering and sciences. That's unique. I'm not saying it's better or worse; it's just a different feeling. It's a different community. But what is really significant, for me, scientifically here is that NYU has med and dental schools. Over the past 15 years, I collaborate with faculty from both colleagues. I had multiple grants with faculty at dental schools. I had multiple grants with faculty in the medical school. If you think about it, what is tissue engineering, drug delivery? All of these are soft matter-based artificial organs. Dental school might be hard matter based, but it's still polymers. If you have a cavity, it is being filled these days with a polymer. There's a lot of options for a synthetic materials chemist, for a synthetic polymer chemist to make an impact.

ZIERLER: Marcus, we'll bring this story right up to the present. What are you working on these days? What's most interesting to you?

WECK: That really depends on which paper currently I'm working on. [laugh] I have to be honest with you. What paper, I just look at, oh, that's interesting. Here's another idea. We should do this. We should do that. We are working right now on three different areas. We still work extensively on our catalyst supports, which I mentioned before. We are trying to compartmentalize catalyst. What we are currently working on being able to open and close compartments on demand. If you have multiple compartments in your cell, you would like to be able to open each compartment selectively, let something out, put something new in, while all other compartments are closed. Why would you do this? Because if you have catalyst A, B, and C, right now, we always went from A to B to C. What if I want to do B, C, A or C, A, B? The outcome at the end is very different.

The same support structure in water can give you a totally diverse set of interesting and important small molecules, highly complex with chiral centers. That's one project in my group. The second project, as I mentioned before, is to make synthetic proteins. We worked for the last 10 years on how to fold polymers into helices and beta sheets, and now we are starting to understand how are we making real tertiary structures. We just submitted last month our first paper, where we made a tertiary structure reminiscent of a protein tertiary structure using carbon-based polymers only. Finally, we are still working extensively with our colleagues in physics, Dave Pine and Paul Chaikin on colloidal structures. These days, we are looking at colloidal machines. We would love to make colloidal machines. We would love to make a colloidal muscle or a colloidal heart or something like this. That's where the current effort is going towards.

ZIERLER: How much do you let graduate students and postdocs define where the Weck lab is headed?

WECK: They are instrumental. When I write a proposal, we actually write the proposal as a team. I have three subgroups right now: the catalyst subgroup, the polymer subgroup, and the colloid subgroup. I would get a subgroup together, and say, "Guys, I want to write a proposal in six months to NSF. Let's start thinking. Where do you think are the big problems? What do you think are cutting edge ideas? Why doesn't everybody go home, we meet in two weeks, and you just come with one transparency, and give me some ideas?" Then we get together two weeks later. Most likely, none of the ideas are perfect. We are like, "This might work. That might work. Why don't we dig a little bit deeper?"

We all come up with ideas, discuss these ideas, and then we are writing the proposal together. I think it is important for young scientists to learn creativity, scientific creativity, intuition, innovation, and how to really think outside of the box. How can you learn this if you are not being taught this during your graduate career? I think it's really important that students and postdocs are involved in creating new ideas and in creating proposals. It might be that at the end of the day, most of the proposal is my idea. But it might also be that it's the idea of a student is great and I'm, "That's a cool idea. Good thinking. It might not fit for NSF, but it might fit for Department of Energy or for NIH or for ONR or something like this." I would say that there is a very strong interaction between my group and myself when it comes to developing new ideas.

ZIERLER: We've talked about what a great beneficiary you've been of mentorship, at Mainz, Caltech, and at Harvard. How have you tried to transfer that in now your own capacity as a mentor?

WECK: I think you probably have to ask my students if it works or not.

ZIERLER: [laugh]

WECK: I think that I give my students and my group in general the freedom to be as creative as possible. I also tell them what George always said. I'm like, "If you come up with the good ideas, you can do it. I will find a way to fund you, one way or the other." I try to foster ideas. I have group meeting every week. I have subgroup meetings every week. Sometimes students come up, and say, "I want to do this." I would give them my opinion, but I will not force them to do what I think is the right way to do. Now, I have 30 years' of experience when it comes to polymer chemistry. Probably my intuition goes a long way. I might not be always right, but I probably am mostly right. But if a student or a postdoc doesn't believe me, and wants to try it out, they also need to get this intuition. So I let them go ahead with it.

I support my students and my postdoc and their career choice of what they would like to do when they leave the group. My former group members are everywhere. From academics, to industry, to scientific writing, to patent lawyers, and everything in between. From start-up companies, to large companies such as Dow or DuPont. I hope I create a lab environment where people can feel encouraged to work their best, and to think creatively. If I have done this, I think I did a good job.

ZIERLER: Now, not being very tech-savvy yourself, are you relying on your students, as inevitably computation and machine learning will become more relevant in polymer chemistry?

WECK: Absolutely. Absolutely. There's no question about this. I think that this is one of the things which nobody ever teaches you when you are in grad school or a postdoc, is how to run a group, how to manage a group. Everybody, when you're hired as an assistant professor, knows you're a good scientist. They give you a bunch of money, and say, "More or less in five years, I see you, with a thumb up or a thumb down." I think one of the things which my German advisor always said is: "Marcus, if you want to go into academics, you have to be a people's person. You have to be able to read students and postdocs. You have to figure out what is their strengths and what is their interest. You have to make sure you put them in an area where they can flourish and succeed." I think I'm pretty good in it. I'm not saying I'm perfect. But I think I'm pretty good in it.

ZIERLER: Marcus, I want to turn to the Society of Polymer Chemists. What are the journals, what are the conferences that are most important for you to get together with your colleagues?

WECK: I think that for every chemist, the American Chemical Society national meetings are always a big one. I sometimes go to the Materials Research Society meetings, and then the Gordon Conferences, which probably you have heard before. Then in Europe, there are a bunch of smaller conferences, which I sometimes attend. I still have former friends and family in Germany. I just was in Germany on sabbatical for six months with my family. I attended several meetings there. I think these are the meetings I mainly go to.

ZIERLER: Marcus, for the last part of our talk, I would like to ask some retrospective questions, and then we'll end looking to the future. Let's start, of course, with Caltech, which is what brings us to together. What has stayed with you from your Caltech days?

WECK: I have to say that I loved my PhD career. My graduate career was fantastic. I have still friends to date I see often. I interact with close friends. I think that the Caltech community, for me, was a very unique community, and was a very welcoming community. The Grubbs group was fantastic. I love Bob. I love his whole family. I still am in touch with his kids. As you know, he has three kids. I visited his wife, so Barnie, Brandon, and Katie's mom, when we were last time as a family in California. The Grubbs family is a very unique and very welcoming family; amazing family. I just had a fantastic time at Caltech. I think what stayed scientifically with me is the rigor, the scientific rigor you get at Caltech. I think we're very critical of each other on a very friendly and non-aggressive way. You made sure that you tried to bring the best out of people at Caltech, your group members but also between groups.

There was always the organometallic seminar between the Grays, the Bercaw, and the Grubbs group on Friday afternoons. Yes, John, Bob, and Harry would show up now and then, but it was driven by students and postdocs. It was very rigorous, and there was lots of fantastic discussions. I think the collaborative nature is very unique at Caltech. I have to say that the Whitesides group was very collaborative but not with Harvard faculty. George had lots of collaborations outside of Harvard; not with Harvard faculty. That was very different than my time at Caltech. I think that what is unique, in particular, coming from Germany. At Caltech when you had a problem, you go to the Nobel Laureate. You can go to Rudy Marcus, and say, "Rudy, I don't understand this Marcus theory, and my first name is Marcus. Can you explain it to me in 10 minutes or less?" Rudy would be like, "OK, another one. Come in my office."

ZIERLER: [laugh]

WECK: Rudy would tell you in 10 minutes the Marcus theory or not. I think that I never had a faculty member at Caltech who would not take his or her or their time to talk to me, to help me, and to support me. Very unique.

ZIERLER: Marcus, of course, it's very sad we lost Bob Grubbs in December of 2021. You've mentioned it throughout our discussion, but I'll ask you in a nice, direct way if you can reflect on his legacy, both as a scientist and as a person.

WECK: I think as a scientist, Bob brought olefin metathesis to the world. I think his impact on the broad area of chemistry cannot be underestimated. I think he really made a difference for a lot of people, and not only academics; also industry. I think that olefin metathesis is a mainstay. Grubbs catalyst is a mainstay. Since then, it has been advanced, not only by him. We talk about Grubbs-Hoveyda catalyst and so on. There are other people who made important contributions, and they're central contributions, but they would not have been possible without Bob. But I think Bob's biggest legacy probably is as an advisor and as a supporter of his people. The Grubbs family, I mean, I think Bob has over 70 former Grubbs members in academic departments. I don't think you can name an academic at a top 50 university which doesn't have one or two Grubbs people at it. Caltech has multiple Grubbs people, Greg Fu for example. I think it is as important that we all still get along. If I go on a conference, and I see Geoff or I see Bob Waymouth, who's at Stanford, or Tim Swager, who's at MIT, and I'm like, "Tim, are you up for a beer? Let's talk." There's no barrier. You're part of the Grubbs group. One of the reasons I think is Bob always had this camping trip, the Grubbs group camping trip, which I think made Bob also a human being to the whole group. We would be in—I don't know—Kings Canyon or Sequoia or Yosemite for like 5 to 10 days. We all took the same shower, and used the same bathrooms, and used the same bear boxes to store our food. That is very unique. Bob has been a very unique mentor and supporter of me over the last 25 years. As I mentioned before, for money and scientific reasons, as a graduate student, I never went home for Christmas. That means that every Christmas I spent with the Grubbs family. Helen, Barnie, Brandon, and Katie, they would always welcome me and my girlfriend at the time to the house. They are part of my family on some level still to date.

There's a really cute story. Bob won the Nobel Prize in 2005. In 2007, I moved to NYU, and my long-term partner at that time and I broke up. I am now married for close to 15 years with a fantastic wife. We have two kids. But before we had two kids, I got a phone call from Linda, as I mentioned, Bob's long-term administrator. I was surprised and asked "Linda, what's going on?" She's like, "Marcus, Bob is in New York in two weeks. Do you have time for dinner?" I was even more surprised and said "Bob never calls me when he's in New York." [laugh] He always would go to Barney to visit his grand kids because Barney's family lives in Stony Brook, an hour away on Long Island. I told Linda "absolutely, whatever time I will make it work". She's like, "What about this day, and you can just pick him up." I picked up Bob from the hotel. My partner, who's now my wife, and I, we took Bob to a very nice Italian restaurant. We were having a great discussion for two hours. Afterwards, Petra (my wife) asked Bob if he would like to come home and have a glass of whiskey? Somebody from Kentucky, you know, loves Whiskey and Bourbon—and since his wife is from Ireland, Helen is Irish, whiskey makes total sense. I, at that point, had 15–20 different whiskeys at home. Bob was like, "OK, let's go home." Our apartment, was on the 20th floor, and had a fantastic uptown view. You look out of our living room and there's the Chrysler building, and the Empire State Building, and you're like, oh, New York living. Bob was like, "Very nice view." We drink our scotch, and Bob's like, "You know why I'm here?" "I have no idea, Bob, why you are here." [laugh] He's like, "Helen learned you have a new serious girlfriend." And Helen said, "Bob, why don't you meet with Marcus and check out this new girlfriend. You want to make sure she's good."

ZIERLER: [laugh]

WECK: [laugh] I'm like, "OK, I guess that makes sense." The Grubbs family is, for me, part of my family. When Bob passed away, it was Brandon actually, his younger son, the middle kid, who kept some of us informed what is going on. I knew about Bob's health issues and the surgeries he went through. When he passed away, it was a shock for all of us. It's a disaster. But it's also a disaster for science, because Bob passed away way too early, and there would've been some amazing scientific discovery from him in the future.

ZIERLER: Marcus, the way that Bob referred to himself, Bob the chemist, this persona of being a simple and accessible person, what did that hide about his brilliance, about his complexity, and did the Nobel Prize change him at all, do you think?

WECK: First, when you are at the level of a Bob Grubbs, most faculty built around themselves some kind of shelter. Bob did not. You could go to Bob, whatever you want, and Bob would give you his comments. If he knew exactly what to do, he would tell you. If he didn't know, he would mumble something, because he didn't want to tell you directly he didn't know. [laugh] But he would come back later and tell you. I think that Bob was unique that he was welcoming. He lacked absolute arrogance, in my opinion, which a lot of other faculty at this level have. I don't think the Nobel Prize changed him. I think, sure enough, he traveled more. He had less time. He was less available. But, still, I don't think that as a person it changed him. I think what made Bob unique is Bob knew that olefin metathesis is a winning topic, and he stayed with it during his whole career. He understood it so deeply and so well and so unique that he was able to make the advances his group did. I think that, at the end of the day, he was instrumental in getting the Nobel Prize for all three recipients.

ZIERLER: Finally, Marcus, last question for you, looking to the future. As your career has become more interdisciplinary, as you've branched out into further and further disciplines, where are things headed for you? What areas of research have you not taken on where you can see a path and you want to go there?

WECK: I don't want to put myself now into a corner, and say, we will work on X, Y, and Z. But I would like to be able, within the next 10–15 years, to create nature-inspired-like architectures on demand with whatever function I am interested in and want to. I will do this with whatever way I would like to get there. What kind of new areas will I see myself? I think we will go into artificial machines in general. But that depends where the funding also takes us a little bit. But as my postdoc advisor always said, "Don't decide your research based on funding. Good research will always get funded." I have to say I do this job now for 23 years. Whitesides is 100% right. If you have good ideas, you will find a way to get these ideas funded. Knock on wood. You never know what happens. Yes, I got proposals rejected, like all of us, but I have never ran out of funding. I thought this is really cutting-edge science. How can it be this funding agency or that funding agency will not take it? But I think that we will start to understand how to translate synthetic systems into the biological realm, and how to increase complexity, and get the complexity and function biology has using synthetic polymer chemistry.

ZIERLER: It sounds like, as a recipe to success, keeping an open mind, not boxing yourself into a corner is how you've achieved what you've achieved so far, so that should continue into the future.

WECK: I do not put myself into a box, and say, "I am only doing this or only doing that." We have started on new projects based on a discussion with a colleague. It might be that we had a faculty speaker, and we might go to lunch together or dinner together. We stayed afterwards, and two bottles of wine later, we agreed on a totally new area we are going into. That I think is important. If you don't keep your curiosity, I think you have the wrong job as a faculty member.

ZIERLER: Well put, well put! Marcus, this has been a wonderful conversation. I want to thank you so much for spending this time with me.

WECK: Thank you, David.