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Faculty Spotlight: Brian Hoffman

Brian Hoffman is a Charles E. and Emma H Morrison Professor of Chemistry and a professor of Molecular Biosciences.  His research focuses on the catalytic mechanisms of metalloensymes through the development and implementation of ENDOR spectroscopy. Brian’s recent research delving into potential life on Mars has been widely written about this past fall. He has been a valued member of the Department faculty for over 40 years.

How did you decide to pursue a career in chemistry?

I didn’t. It all began with my third-year high school physics class. The teacher was a charming rogue, and we had a lovely time throughout the year. However, at the end of the year I took stock and was frustrated and annoyed to discover I had learned no physics. I then vowed to learn some chemistry the next year, regardless of how the class went the following year. The chemistry professor turned out to be an even more charming rogue and, if anything, taught us less. However, I had followed through on my vow, had studied intently, and was reasonably accomplished and involved in chemistry. That’s where it started.

By then I was considering college and possible majors and was drawn to a career in medicine. I checked with some docs I knew and they recommended chemistry as a good premed major. So, I was on my way.

Fast forward to my last year in college as a chem major: I was torn between Graduate School and Medical School. April 15th is the drop-dead date for accepting an acceptance offer, and I had offers from both grad and med schools. What to do, which way to go? At 3 AM on April 15, there I was, Mr. Decisive, walking the forbidding streets of Hyde Park, Chicago, wrestling with that question.

Robert Frost best described such a dilemma, its resolution, and it’s inevitable outcome: “Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—I took the one less traveled by, And that has made all the difference.”

Tell us how your career path led you to Northwestern?

Fast forward again: When I was finishing my PhD at Caltech, academic positions were frequently filled through the ‘old boys’ network’, and one day my mentor, Harden McConnell, asked me into his office upon receipt of such a phone call from NU. He asked me if I was interested in a faculty position at Northwestern. Regardless of any impression I may have had about the school, I had only recently left the Midwest and not been inclined to ‘fall back into the bosom of my family’! So, I distinctly heard two voices in response. A loud voice in the back of my head hollered, “Hell no!” But my mouth was smarter: it weakly said “Of course!”

There were, however, two other schools that I was interested in, or rather that were interested in me through McConnell’s efforts. I visited one, and if you are familiar with faculty interview days, you will recognize mine. For much of the visit day, I was taken from office to office for meetings with individual faculty members. Each ended the discussion with the encouraging remark, “This is a great place to do research, “, but not one stopped there. Each finished the sentence with, “even though it’s a lousy place to live!” By the end of the day, I believed both things.

I confirmed the latter half of the sentence on the flight out. On the flight in, I was so busy with my talk that I didn’t look out the window. Departing, I looked out the window and saw a vast sea of corn. Enough said. (It’s a very different and in fact remarkable place today!)

That left the East Coast school and Northwestern to consider. At that time the other school was notorious for never promoting its young faculty members, and I was sufficiently self-aware to admit that I wouldn’t thrive in a place that didn’t encourage me to succeed. On visiting northwestern I discovered a warm, welcoming, and embracing environment. The choice was easy.

So, I went off to postdoc at MIT with the NU job in my pocket, broadening my scientific horizons in ways that had major impacts going forward as I started at NU.

What is the best part of being at Northwestern?

That I was right about the environment of the chemistry department! This was true when I arrived and began my career ‘under the wing’ of the senior faculty, and the members of the Department have ever since valued this atmosphere and worked to perpetuate it.

How would you describe your teaching style?

As a part-time cellist (my own playing grew out of a role as ‘Suzuki dad’ for my daughter, Alex), I play only from the classical music literature, where expressiveness is in how you play the notes. However, teaching leans more towards a different musical genre: jazz and improvisation. A class is most rewarding to both ‘performer and audience’ if it’s a dialogue, with extended riffs on subjects suggested through conversation with the students.

If you were to describe your research to someone outside of Chemistry, what would you tell them? 

Usually as little as possible. I must be persuaded that the questioner is really interested before giving details, because if I’m enthusiastically relating our latest/greatest, the glazed look on someone’s face when they get TMI is such a downer.

For the record, perhaps our most notable (and ongoing) work has been in determining the catalytic mechanisms of metalloenzymes through advanced paramagnetic resonance techniques. As one primary effort, we are revealing the mechanism of Nature’s most complex metalloenzyme, nitrogenase.  All nitrogen as nutrients originates in the initial conversion (‘fixation’) of atmospheric N2 to two NH3, and even today over half the human population depends on nitrogen fixation by nitrogenase. As a second, the radical-SAM metalloenzymes form Nature’s largest enzyme superfamily, with over 700,000 members and spanning all kingdoms of life. We are revealing the common mechanism by which all these enzymes initiate their remarkably diverse range of reactions. 

You recently had some interesting research dealing with bacteria on Mars that gained a lot of attention. Can you tell us about that?

A recent publication concluded that microorganisms could possibly survive on Mars over geologic timescales if frozen, desiccated, and buried in the Martian subsurface. This indicated that if microbes had evolved on Mars, it is conceivable they could have survived until the present day! In parallel we assessed the possibilities of backward contamination of Earth through upcoming return missions, as well as of forward contamination of Mars by ongoing space missions. 

Once the press was published, the overwhelming human interest in the possibilities of extra-terrestrial life generated an amazing interest in this report (over 100 newsfeeds, with perhaps 15-20 million eyeballs on it), using up the majority of the ‘15 minutes of fame’ Andy Warhol assigned to each of us. 

What is something that is not on your CV that you would like us to know?

Most important: I am a wholly owned subsidiary of the five most wonderful women on the planet: my wife, Janet, and our four daughters, Tara, Abby, Alex, and Julia. (The grandkids ain’t too shabby either!)

Then just for fun: That moment in McConnell’s office is not the only time I’ve heard two voices, the other time was skydiving! On your first jump the chute is deployed by a static line from the plane – as training, you are supposed to count to three (time enough to clear the plane) then pull a dummy ripcord. So, as I jumped, I grabbed the dummy while my mouth was calmly counting aloud: “one-thousand-one, one-thousand-two, ....” Meanwhile the voice in the back of my head was screaming: “Yowwwwww....” Fortunately, I didn’t have to learn if I had the presence of mind to ever pull that ripcord!