Interview with Dr. Jeff Warren

Assistant Professor, Department of Chemistry

Bioinorganic Chemistry, Renewable Energy, Green Chemistry, Enzyme Engineering

Dr. Jeff Warren is passionate about renewable energy and protecting our planet. His research program aims to develop both chemical and enzymatic technologies that will convert greenhouse gases, e.g., carbon dioxide or carbon monoxide, into materials that can be used for making useful products like fuel or plastics. The other side of his research is focused on health sciences, where his group is collaborating on studies involving mutated proteins associated with cancer.

What life experiences led you to pursue a career in research?
I was always interested in STEM (i.e., science, technology, engineering and mathematics) fields; plus, I had great teachers who were excited about science and math, and parents who were totally into their kids’ interests. What drew me into chemistry in particular was a nudge from my organic chemistry professor in university. I was a pharmacy major, but when he questioned my choice of majors, that provoked me to re-evaluate my interests and my career path.

What part of your research gives you the most satisfaction?
Being in the lab with my students and seeing them make a discovery or a molecule that has never been made before. That moment when they realize that they've done something significant is very satisfying to me.

Dr. Warren tuning his lab's nanosecond laser

What are you investigating right now?
I have two big projects, one in energy and one in health science. A lot of my work has shifted to carbon dioxide reduction chemistry. My group and I are building small molecules and materials that can activate CO2 and convert it into products with one or more carbon atoms. As long as the product has some use, we are interested. Usually, we are looking to generate carbon monoxide because it is useful in a variety of applications, but some alkanes, such as propane, are useful as well.

For most of my adult life I've been interested in enzymes and that has led to my ongoing work on engineering new reactivity into these proteins. For example, we are altering enzymes so that they catalyze the conversion of biomolecules like fatty acids into precursors of plastics and fuel-grade alkanes.

I also collaborate with medicinal inorganic chemists Tim Storr and Charles Walsby here at SFU. We look at molecules that have the capacity to interact with malfunctioning enzymes caused by specific mutations. In particular, we are interested in the proteins known as p53, because a mutated form is found in a variety of cancers. This protein serves a key role in regulating the life cycle of the cell, and if it malfunctions, this can lead to cancer. We want to develop transition metal-containing molecules that can restore the natural function of p53, which in turn will activate pathways that will destroy tumours.

What motivates your green chemistry research?
Right now, many things that are made and used by humans come from petroleum. I am interested in making new catalysts that can be used to convert compounds that are not very useful in excess (like carbon dioxide) into small molecule precursors for manufacturing plastics and fuels (like carbon monoxide).

I am passionate about this work and I believe that this is the future of chemistry, though Canada has fallen behind the rest of the world in terms of renewable energy research. Green chemistry is fundamentally important. You can have the best healthcare in the world but if you end up killing the planet then healthcare really doesn't matter.

You recently became a ‘CIFAR Global Scholar’. What does that mean, and how does it affect your research program?
CIFAR is the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research. It's an organization that funds a variety of research portfolios spanning all of science. The Global Scholar program was made possible by the Azrieli Foundation; the late David Azrieli was an architect and philanthropist and his foundation provided funding to CIFAR to specifically to support young investigators. I was chosen as part of the first round of global scholars. The award provides me with $100,000 of undesignated research support over two years. That amount of money really changes the way my group operates, especially here in Canada where research generates such great bang for each buck.

You have conducted research in both Canada and the U.S. – what is one notable difference that you have observed?
In Canada, we (the physical scientists) have done an inadequate job of engaging the public – they don’t get to see the fruits of the tax dollars invested in science. In the U.S., science is big, it's all over the news, it is spectacular and sexy. In Canada, we have funding resources and amazing students, but we routinely drop the ball in conveying what we do to the general public.

What other activities do you participate in at SFU or in your scientific community?
I have a hard time saying no to anything. I was invited by the Biology undergraduate society at SFU to give a talk related to Jurassic Park, I've given ‘Careers in Chemistry’ talks, lab tours, and chemistry demonstrations at Science World in Vancouver. I try to be generous with my time. I believe there is a great dividend from getting out there and showing that the Department of Chemistry is not a bunch of stodgy scientists.

What contemporary scientific issue concerns you the most and needs more attention?
I think energy is the single biggest problem we need to confront in the next 50 to 100 years. More specifically, I am referring to a shift away from fossil fuel. “Energy” is a loaded word because it includes so much: the fuels for our cars, planes, and houses; the jobs that support myriad industries; how to store energy for on-demand use; and how to make the materials that we routinely rely upon. This is an incomplete list, but it is hard to think of an aspect of life that doesn’t involve material or energy that comes from fossil fuels.

What do you think will be key to future breakthroughs in your field?
I'm most excited about our students and their potential to tackle problems in their own way. I see the students that we have now as tenacious data gatherers. I think they can do more for science in the next 50 years than is currently imaginable. Students today have this great ability to acquire data, assemble it, and come to conclusions. We've gone from a society of memorizers to a society of knowledge gatherers. What really underlies innovation is the ability to access a vast amount of knowledge and synthesize new ideas from it.

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Read more: Dr. Warren’s profile on the Department of Chemistry website, the Warren lab site and interviews with other faculty members on the Featured Researchers page

Interview by Jacqueline Watson with Theresa Kitos