Faculty Spotlight: Regan J. Thomson
By Irena Garic
Regan J. Thomson was born in New Zealand in 1976, and received his Ph.D. in 2003 at The Australian National University where he worked for Prof. Lewis N. Mander. Following postdoctoral studies at Harvard University with Prof. David A. Evans, he joined the faculty at Northwestern University in 2006 where he is currently Professor of Chemistry. Regan’s research interests include natural product synthesis and discovery, and atmospheric chemistry. He is the recipient of an NSF CAREER Award, an Amgen Young Investigator Award, and an Illinois Division American Cancer Society Research Scholar Award. In 2020, he was named a Charles Deering McCormick Professor of Teaching Excellence. In his spare time Regan enjoys exploring Chicago’s restaurant scene with his wife, Ashley, playing with his dog, Kermit, riding bikes and playing Hearthstone.
What Chemistry class / professor did you enjoy the most as an undergraduate or graduate student and why?
As an undergraduate at the University of Auckland in New Zealand my favorite class was “Organic and Physical Chemistry” when I was a freshman. In particular it was the lab aspect of the class I enjoyed most. I remember the first day of lab clearly, we walked in and were randomly assigned spaces to work, and my lab “TA” happened to be the class instructor, Professor Con Canbie! He gathered us together and said “We are Group A and we are going to do things just a little bit better than everyone else,” which I thought was funny, but also kind of motivational. In subsequent years, it was other chemistry lab classes that made me change my major from molecular biology to chemistry, in part because of the interactions I had with the professors in the department. For example, I was shocked when one day Prof. Stew Rutledge came by the lab, walked up to me and asked “How are you doing today, Regan?” Those personal touches resonated with me, made class enjoyable, and ultimately had a long-term impact on my own approach to teaching and mentoring.
Describe your teaching style?
In 2009 I participated in the year-long Searle Fellows Program run by the Searle Center for Advancing Learning and Teaching at Northwestern University. During one of the evening sessions, the then director of the center, Dr. Greg Light, made a comment along the lines of “The lecture is a grand collusion between instructors and students. Instructors turn up and pretend to teach for an hour, while the students pretend to learn.” This statement has since informed much of my teaching philosophy, largely focusing on the questions why does this grand collusion exist, and what can I do about it? On the one hand, from my perspective as the instructor, I try to make sure each class is organized and structured, and I adhere to a “slow down, cover less, teach more” philosophy. That is to say, what is the point ripping through loads of material if the students are not internalizing any of it in class? Rather, I focus on key concepts and problem-solving techniques that can form the foundation of learning and can make each lecture productive. From the perspective of the students, I apply lessons from my own experience as a student and how validating it was when professors knew my name and demonstrated care for me. To that end, I ask each student to fill in a personalized information sheet to send to me, and I create one about myself to send to them. The perception that the professor is unapproachable is a major challenge, and I believe this is one reason students don’t ask for help or come to office hours. If students can see that we have some things in common, then their anxiety about talking to me might be reduced and the barrier to learning lowered. As an immigrant and first-generation college student who is passionate about diversity, equity and inclusion, I believe I have much in common with many of our students, and I enjoy sharing that with them.
What are your current research interests?
At its essence, most of my research can be distilled down to a curiosity and wonder with natural products. Sometimes referred to as secondary metabolites, natural products are molecules produced by organisms that are not involved in primary metabolism, but may play some other ancillary role in promoting organismal health and longevity. Perhaps the most famous natural product is penicillin, a molecule produced by fungi whose antibacterial properties provide the fungus protection from competitive bacteria; a property leveraged by humans to produce the first broad spectrum antibiotic for human disease. My research has focused a great deal on developing new chemical reactions and strategies that can be used to synthesize natural products in a de novo manner through a process known as total synthesis. It's a challenging, yet highly creative and satisfying area of science to be a part of, but in recent years my interest in natural products has expanded beyond just trying to make them in a flask. For example, working with Prof. Neil Kelleher in the Department of Chemistry we are now actively engaged in the discovery of new natural products from bacteria, hoping to uncover the next generation of antibiotics or anti-cancer agents. In a collaboration with Prof. Franz Geiger in the Department of Chemistry, we are exploring the roles that volatile natural products produced by plants might play in the atmosphere. This is a fascinating and exciting direction for my lab’s research, where our work in organic synthesis is leading us to novel interactions with physical chemists, atmospheric scientists and engineers.
What are some potential applications for the work that you’re doing?
A few years ago, Prof, Neil Kelleher and I, along with Prof. Bill Metcalf, a biologist from UIUC, founded a company called MicroMGx that is seeking to leverage discoveries made within our labs related to natural product discovery to uncover new molecules from bacteria with applications in the medical, agrichemical and animal health industries. It’s been fun and interesting to engage in an entrepreneurial activity with the goal of translating fundamental academic discoveries into outcomes benefiting society.
What is the best part about being at the Northwestern University?
When I was looking for jobs I had a short list of places I wanted to live and work that was focused on cosmopolitan cities. If I couldn’t land a job in one of those places, rather than live in a less desirable (for me) location within the US, I would move back to New Zealand or Australia. Northwestern’s location adjacent to Chicago was a major pull, and somehow I was lucky enough to get a job here! I love living in the city and exploring all the wonderful things on offer, such as the amazing restaurants, the beautiful lakefront and thriving music scene. Having now been at Northwestern for nearly 15 years, I can also attest to the wonderful people I get to work with everyday. I feel so lucky to work with talented students overflowing with passion for science and for making the world a better place, to be able to work with exceptionally dedicated staff to whom I owe a great debt, and to have faculty colleagues who are legends in their fields.
Do you have any advice for young researchers considering a career in academia?
In 1997, I packed up my apartment in New Zealand for the summer, put my belongings in storage, and flew across the Tasman Sea for a 8 week research scholarship in Canberra, Australia, fully intending to return to NZ and complete my BS degree the next year. I had such a great time that summer working for Prof. Lew Mander, who was considered one of the most eminent organic chemists in the southern hemisphere, that I decided to move to Australia and complete my undergraduate honors year in his lab. I called my Mom and told her I was not coming home and to please sell all my stuff, then I transferred my credits from the University of Auckland to the Australian National University. The only problem was that Prof. Mander was on holiday hiking in Tasmania, and he had no idea of my scheme. As it turned out he had not had an undergraduate work in his lab for 20 years, he’d worked exclusively with graduate students and post-docs, but lucky for me he gave me a chance. I ended up doing my PhD in his lab, which was when I first started to consider pursuing a career in academia. I enjoyed everything about research and the camaraderie of academia, but knew if I wanted a job I needed to make myself as competitive as possible. Most of my peers in Australia either stayed put or did post-docs in Europe or the UK, and there was a negative attitude about going to the US due to what was considered an unhealthy work-life balance. But I knew if I wanted the best training I had to go to where the best research was, and for me that was in the US with Prof. David Evans at Harvard University. It was 2003, and once again I sold everything I owned and flew across the Pacific Ocean to another new country with nothing but two suitcases in hand.
What does this story have to do with offering advice to young researchers considering a career in academia?
Maybe nothing relevant at all, but my point was to share my own little journey and express the idea that when you truly want something you should dive into that goal with complete commitment. A career in academia requires a lot of self-sacrifice and comes with a great deal of uncertainty, especially in the early days as an assistant professor, so discipline, focus and hard work are essential companions with passion and desire.
What is one thing not on your CV that you would like us to know?
My favorite animal is the kakapo, which are large, flightless, nocturnal parrots endemic to New Zealand. They are critically endangered; the population was as low as about 50 birds in the late 1970’s but thanks to active conservation efforts there are now some 200 birds surviving on predator-free islands of the NZ coast. I “adopted” a kakapo a few years back as part of conservation efforts, and I also have a rather large tattoo of one across my chest.
What is the first thing you will do after COVID-19 pandemic is over?
I was meant to go to Australia in July, 2020, to visit my sister and meet my niece for the first time, so doing that trip with a stop-over in New Zealand to see my Mom is high priority on my list. Along with seeing my wife’s family in Winnipeg, Canada. I’m also looking forward to going to Topolobampo for dinner.