Nanotechnology at Northwestern

Meet Christopher Eckdahl, a graduate student in the Kalow Lab

August 06, 2021

Christopher Eckdahl is a graduate student in the Kalow Lab, which engages in research at the interface of organic synthesis, polymer chemistry, and materials science.

Christopher EckdahlWhere are you originally from?

St. Joseph, Missouri, which is a medium-sized town an hour from Kansas City.

Where did you complete your undergraduate degree?

Oberlin College, a small liberal arts college and conservatory in Ohio.

When did you first become interested in chemistry?

Honestly, I did not see eye-to-eye with chemistry through high school. Instead, I was enamored with astronomy and astrophysics. To my short-lived disappointment, I had to take General Chemistry as a requirement for my physics degree during my first semester. What was meant to be a boring class I would get through and never think about again became my favorite and most engaging class!

My professor, Jesse Rowsell, inspired me and many other students through his dynamic teaching and infectious love for chemistry. A January spent in Prof. Rowsell’s laboratory for my “Winter Term” project cemented my newfound interest in chemistry, and I ended up majoring in both chemistry and physics.

How do you explain what you study to non-scientists?

I have a few different projects, but they all involve discovering and understanding new and weird ways that light can interact with molecules. When molecules absorb light, they gain a lot of energy and they can use that energy to do some crazy reactions. Some of those reactions take place in your eye and are what allow you to see! Really energetic molecules can be a blessing and a curse, though, since it can be challenging to get molecules to channel their energy into one reaction versus another. That’s why it’s bad to stare at the sun.

In one of my projects, I am trying to address this challenge by preassembling molecules in ways that favor certain reactions over others.  I use molecules called cucurbiturils, which are shaped like tiny nano-capsules, to hold two other molecules close together. When those molecules being held together are excited by light, they selectively participate in a single reaction together, whereas without the cucurbituril, they do all sorts of other things.

This type of strategy for controlling photochemistry could allow chemists to utilize the huge amount of energy available from the sun to do productive, predictable chemistry.

One of your research interests is using light to control the synthesis and properties of organic materials. What inspired you to focus on that, and what are you finding that you’re excited about?

I have a somewhat philosophical answer. As I mentioned, I was originally interested in physics, and I ended up majoring in chemistry and physics. I saw in these two disciplines a complimentary approach to understanding how the world works.

On the one hand, physicists could write down equations to describe the tiniest constituents of matter and in so doing explain the interactions that lead to our world. On the other hand, chemists, especially synthetic chemists, could understand these interactions on an intuitive level even in complicated situations where no physicist could ever write down an equation to solve.

I never lost my interest in physics, but I found myself especially drawn to chemists’ intuitive understanding of our molecular world.  I became especially interested in light because excitations by light often flip intuition on its head and expand the ways that I think about molecules.

One project that I am really excited about lately is a collaboration with Pufan Liu and Hongfei Zeng from Prof. Nathaniel Stern’s lab in physics. We have been studying how photoreactive molecules’ interactions with light change when they are placed between two closely spaced mirrors. If the mirrors are positioned at just the right distance, light can bounce back and forth between the mirrors and interact much more strongly with the molecules than it would normally.  We are finding that this strong interaction can lead to unexpected effects such as accelerated photoreactions.

It is really exciting to be working in a young research field, and the results that we are getting so far are challenging me to think about light and molecules in new ways.

What has been a highlight of your time at Northwestern?

In the summers of 2019 and 2020 I taught a four-week general chemistry course for the Hodge EXCEL Scholars program, which is a “bridge” program for incoming freshmen intended to increase enrollment and improve retention of students from traditionally underrepresented backgrounds in STEM programs at Northwestern. The EXCEL team, led by Dr. Luke Flores and Ellen Worsdall, was incredible, but the students I got to work with in EXCEL were the highlight. Seeing students grow together as a community and help each other do and learn new things is an incredible thing.

Teaching in EXCEL is one of the most meaningful teaching experiences I have had, and it inspired me to pursue teaching as the primary focus of my career.

What has been the most challenging aspect of your work or your time at Northwestern?

The transition from course-based learning to research-based learning is hard for everybody (I think). I was very motivated by the positive feedback I got through tests and other assessments in my courses. In research, however, there is not a periodic, predictable assessment of your knowledge. Learning to be motivated and confident without having someone tell me I had gotten the “right answer” was challenging, but a great learning experience.

Additionally, I felt quite isolated from my fellow graduate students as I transitioned to spending more and more time in lab toward the end of my first year. I have since found a lovely community of graduate students from all sorts of disciplines in the form of Northwestern University Graduate Workers (NUGW), and I want to encourage any graduate students reading this to check us out.

Can you tell me about your experiences either being mentored or mentoring others?

I am so thankful to so many wonderful mentors without whom I would not be the person I am today. At Oberlin College, I worked in the labs of Profs. Jesse Rowsell, who brought out my interest in chemistry, Stephen FitzGerald, who taught me to think like a scientist, and Manish Mehta, who taught me to be ever curious and unafraid in research.  From my advisor at Northwestern, Prof. Julia Kalow, I’ve learned how to design research projects, think of creative solutions, and navigate the world of science. I also want to acknowledge Dr. Jacob Ishibashi, who was a post-doc in the Kalow Lab for my first several years of graduate school and who taught me the ins and outs of being a synthetic chemist.

My passion for teaching has developed at Northwestern thanks to another set of mentors. Dr. Luke Flores and Ellen Worsdall, who run the EXCEL program I mentioned earlier, were helpful, patient, and caring during my time as an EXCEL instructor. Also, a fellow EXCEL instructor, Dr. Riki Drout, has been a mentor for me since my first year when we TA’d General Chemistry together.

I have been lucky to work with some inspiring mentees. In the Kalow Lab, I worked with an outstanding undergraduate, Carrie Ou, on the nanocapsule project I mentioned earlier. Carrie is a quick learner and a creative thinker, and our project would not have advanced as far as it has without her insights. I am now mentoring another graduate student in the lab, Christina Hemmingsen, who is a joint student in the physical chemistry group of Prof. Emily Weiss. It has been really fun working with Christina since she is motivated and eager to learn whatever she needs to solve scientific problems, and she asks really insightful questions.

Also, I was recently a Graduate Teaching Mentor for the Searle Teaching Certificate Program. In that role, I got to work with a set of graduate students and post-docs in chemistry to develop their skills as teachers and design new courses. I learned a lot about teaching from that experience, and I am really thankful to Kate Flom Derrick, Dr. Nancy Ruggeri, and Dr. Katie Pearson for affording me that opportunity.

What are your hobbies outside of the lab? As a science fiction fan, any recommendations?

I have a deep love of music of all sorts, both as a listener and as a musician. I have played trumpet since I was 10, but my latest musical hobby is the ukulele.

I also love reading, as you have alluded. My favorite genres are definitely fantasy and science fiction. My favorite sci-fi book I’ve read recently is “Gideon the Ninth” by Tamsyn Muir. It is like a combination of horror and fantasy and romance and sci-fi and mystery that somehow still works. A very fun read. Also anything and everything written by Brandon Sanderson.