The Making of a Scientist: The Nelson Group

Under the guidance of a dynamic new faculty member, three Chemistry & Biochemistry graduate students have been published in Science.

Alex Bagdasarian, Stasik Popov, and Brian Shao got to know each other very well after hour upon hour of experimentation in their lab, arms encased in thick rubber as they worked on highly volatile chemicals within the safety of a tightly sealed glove box.

The months of close proximity paid off. The three UCLA graduate students recently authored their first paper in Science and eagerly share collective credit.

“We each made significant contributions to it, so it definitely doesn’t exist without the three of us,” Shao says. “If it was just one of us doing it, it would’ve been much longer. You probably wouldn’t have heard about it yet,” he adds – with the “it” being a new chemical reaction with significant potential on two fronts.

First, it could turn highly common petroleum byproducts into something useful. Methane, for example, was turned into a more complex molecule by the team in their lab. Given that methane is a greenhouse gas released into the atmosphere during processes like fracking and the melting of arctic permafrost, the ability to turn that gas into a liquid or solid and capture it would be a victory in the fight against global warming.

Light hydrocarbons, as they are known, include butane and propane along with methane, and they are everywhere in modern society. Reactions on them are constantly being done in labs around the world. However, those reactions commonly use precious metal catalysts – rare materials like iridium, platinum or palladium, which are as pricey as or more expensive than gold and thus fundamentally inaccessible and unsustainable. Nelson’s lab has achieved their reaction using a silicon-based catalyst – the same very common silicon that makes up sand or glass – offering a future where light hydrocarbon science is easier and opens doors for innovation by exponentially more scientists.

“This is just our foundational work for what we have in mind, the bigger picture of being able to apply this to functionalized natural gasses and gasses in general that are usually very hard to handle,” Shao says. “There’s such an abundance of natural gas as a resource and we’re hoping to tap into that using our chemistry as a new way to enter the world of energy.”

Bagdasarian adds, “There aren’t a lot of methods for taking extremely inert things that are byproducts of industrial processes and doing productive things with them. Our work is not at that stage yet where we can do it with various types of things, but that’s the end goal. We had to start somewhere, so this is where we started.”

After a moment of weighing the significance of their breakthrough, Bagdasarian says, “We started big.”

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“Conceptually, the chemistry’s really cool,” says UCLA Chemistry & Biochemistry Assistant Professor Hosea Nelson. “It addresses things that people learn about in their undergraduate organic chemistry courses.” But his group took that knowledge a huge step forward.

He adds, “From an academic standpoint, we have what we think is a recipe to make something that people didn’t think you could make.”

Nelson is the Science paper’s senior author. It is within his lab that these budding researchers are being cultivated. The professor had been brainstorming the idea for this particular catalysis before joining the faculty at UCLA in 2015. When he joined forces with Bagdasarian, Popov, and Shao, things happened with surprising speed.

“I wasn’t certain it would work out this well, and actually thought it may work out a different way,” Nelson explains. “We basically started working on it in the lab a little bit less than a year ago, so within a year we had this really tremendous result. That’s really fast.”

What was the key to that success? “The students,” Nelson replies with no hesitation. “They did it all. They’re awesome.”

Bagdasarian and Shao, both second year graduate students, are the two lead authors of the Science article and were the first students to join Nelson’s lab, which is less than two years old. Popov met Bagdasarian and Shao during a recruitment event in 2016 and was so encouraged by them that he decided to join the lab the summer before he had even begun his first-year graduate studies at UCLA. Popov is credited as second lead author on the paper.

“The thing about the students who joined my lab is that they’re very adventuresome. They’re risk takers inherently,” Nelson says. “That’s good for science, in my opinion, and I think part of the reason why the chemistry turned out so well is because I had these guys join the group who were fearless and were just ready to roll and do crazy science.”

Nelson’s own scientific daring led him to be named one of the Talented 12 in Chemical & Engineering News.

As a faculty member within the Chemistry & Biochemistry Department at UCLA, Nelson is committed to help his students grow into scientists. “For undergraduates, I’m doing to do my best in the classroom to try and get them motivated to at least appreciate and understand science. And you get to do science through them. You live vicariously through your students’ successes,” he says.

Big problems that no one knows the answer to are very attractive to Nelson, and there’s a lot of that in chemistry. He works to transmit some of that excitement around problem solving to students and motivate the next generation of scientists who may answers big, fundamental questions – not just about chemistry, but also within society as a whole.

“I have the opportunity at UCLA to reach out to a broad scope of communities from an educational perspective, and that’s not true at a lot of research institutions. We certainly believe in servicing our community educationally,” he explains. “From my personal perspective, Los Angeles is a great place where there are a lot of people who can use a hand and some direction, some mentorship. It’s another area where some out-of-the-box, creative thinking may end up making a really big difference.”

* * *

Nelson’s mission is driven from his own circumstances. He was a high school drop out looking for a solid vocation when he decided to try community college. “I just started taking courses and really liked science, and then I found chemistry and that was that,” he recalls. “It was very much serendipitous.”

Being an untraditional student himself – he began grad school at age 30 – means Nelson has a wide-open mind when it comes to potential in others, particularly younger students who might be headed down the wrong path.

“My viewpoint is that all individuals have something that they can find that they like, or they can be good at, and it’s just a matter of pushing them to look for it or allowing them to look for it,” he says. “I know there are a lot of talented folks out there who are much more talented than I am, but ended up not being successful academically, professionally, or any other way because they didn’t have those opportunities.”

So now, Nelson works to give as much opportunity as possible via the science he does. Bagdasarian, Popov, and Shao are happy to have it.

Shao mentions that the group has received a good deal of positive feedback on the article. “So, it’s not only that it’s published, it’s actually appreciated. A lot of people really enjoy learning about this chemistry because it’s so new and its applications are going to be broadly applicable,” he says.

“It’s good motivation to keep trying to get as much good science out there,” Bagdasarian adds.

Stasik Popov, Hosea Nelson, Brian Shao, and Alex Bagdasarian. Photos by Penny Jennings.

Story by Lisa Y. Garibay