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Glue From Under The Sea

An oyster reef in South Carolina
An oyster reef in South Carolina (Image credit: Jonathan Wilker, Purdue University)

This ScienceLives article was provided to LiveScience in partnership with the National Science Foundation.

Jonathan Wilker is part of the Department of Chemistry and the School of Materials Engineering at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana. The three main aspects of the research program he is a part of are to: characterize marine biological materials such as mussel adhesive and oyster reef cement; design synthetic polymer mimics of biological materials; and to develop applications for these new materials such as wet setting adhesives, surgical glues, dental adhesives and bone cements. Wilker got into this research area from his scuba diving hobby. He was looking around at all the cool things under the seas and he decided that he would like to do research in that area. In addition to scuba diving, Wilker spends a lot of time at the racetrack, learning how to race cars on road courses. Learn more about Wilker’s research on how oysters build reef structures and how mussels make glue for sticking to rocks.

Name: Jonathan Wilker Age: 41 Institution: Purdue University Field of Study: Chemistry and Materials Engineering

What inspired you to choose this field of study? I’m one of those people who has always been drawn to the sea. My parents are probably responsible, bringing me to the coast at every opportunity. In college and graduate school, I became captivated with chemistry and studied that. While a postdoctoral scholar in southern California, I was scuba diving a lot, just for fun. As I saw all the sea creatures, I started to wonder about all the chemistry underwater. Our lab’s research focus has become a combination of my scientific background and a hobby. The chemistry and materials of marine organisms is a really exciting area to study.

What is the best piece of advice you ever received? Have fun! You’re here to be amazed by science and the world around you. If you are lucky enough to find something that really spins your wheels, it won’t feel like work.

What was your first scientific experiment as a child? I’m still not a kid?! Part of the delight with research is that we can follow our child-like excitement to explore the world.

What is your favorite thing about being a researcher? We get to study whatever we think is the coolest, as long as we can both get funding and convince students to work with us on these projects. So, by definition, our research projects are all fascinating to us.

What is the most important characteristic a researcher must demonstrate in order to be an effective researcher? Work hard and be enthusiastic about your research. That’s pretty much all you need. As long as you really enjoy what you are doing and put a lot of time into it, everything should be enjoyable and go well.

Photograph of an underwater adhesion experiment in which a bioinspired polymer is used to bond two submerged metal substrates. (Image credit: Jonathan Wilker, Purdue University)

What are the societal benefits of your research? Our research begins by working to understand how nature makes materials: How do marine mussels stick to rocks? How do oysters build reefs? Then we take what we learn from nature and incorporate those principles into synthetic polymers. We are developing new classes of wet setting materials, such as surgical glues, dental adhesives and bone cements. So we are hoping to impact medicine and solve problems for which there are currently no ideal materials.

Who has had the most influence on your thinking as a researcher? I try to take a little bit from everyone I see and admire. In particular, I like seeing scientists who are not planted firmly in the mainstream, but rather are out there a little bit, doing their own thing. By learning from such people, maybe we can incorporate a little creativity into the research of our own lab.

What about your field or being a researcher do you think would surprise people the most? It’s fun. Sure, it’s tons of work and a lot of experiments don’t work. But, at the end of the day, we really enjoy studying how these marine creatures make materials and also developing our synthetic versions. We could be making more money and working fewer hours doing something else with our lives. Instead, we do this because it’s exciting.

If you could only rescue one thing from your burning office or lab, what would it be? If it’s from my office, probably something boring, like my keys or computer with all of our data and writing. But the lab is where the really important things happen, not my office. We’d have to save all the shellfish from the fire. Otherwise, the rest of the department will show up with forks and drawn butter!

What music do you play most often in your lab or car? I’ve been listening to a lot of surf music over the past couple of years. Mostly modern surf bands such as the Madeira, Slacktone, the Mermen, and the Space Cossacks. Some other music favorites that have been in rotation for years include Morphine, Neko Case, Grant Lee Buffalo, Aimee Mann, the Black Keys, Elbow, and Catherine Wheel. Great stuff!

Editor's Note:This research was supported by the National Science Foundation (NSF), the federal agency charged with funding basic research and education across all fields of science and engineering. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation. See the ScienceLives archive.