Exploring the Journey of Discovery with Dick Co

By Matt GolosinskiAugust 12, 2015

Dick Co, chemistry, helps spur discovery through interdisciplinary collaboration and partnerships with industry and education leaders. He serves as director of operations and outreach for the Argonne-Northwestern Solar Energy Research Center (ANSER), whose mission is to “revolutionize our understanding of molecules, materials, and methods necessary to create dramatically more efficient energy technologies.”

He also is co-founder and managing director of the Solar Fuels Institute (SOFI), a global research consortium affiliated with the Institute for Sustainability and Energy at Northwestern (ISEN). Co and his SOFI colleagues are developing a “Knowledge Map,” which aggregates a massive amount of global scholarship on solar fuels, making it accessible in a searchable database.

Co grew up in a “family of scientists” and went on to earn a bachelor’s degree in chemistry from the University of California, Berkeley, and a doctorate in chemical physics from Harvard University, where he was a National Science Foundation Fellow. His research focuses on ultrafast spectroscopy — particularly involving materials with solar energy applications — as well as scientific communication and outreach to help ensure that “academic labs actually interface with the modern world.”

Family chemistry

My father is a chemist. I remember well he would bring home test tubes and pipettes. I was fascinated by mixing substances, and I still have a visceral memory of one very pungent “experiment” from childhood: I filled a test tube full of suds by mixing water and hand soap and then pipetted my father’s aftershave with the foamy mixture. I was fascinated by how little aftershave was required to break all the bubbles. Over time, my scientific curiosity really took over, as it did for others in my family. I have a brother who is a physicist and another who is a chemist. My wife is also a chemist, as was her father and brother. As an undergraduate, I was drawn to studying reactions at the surface of a liquid using x-ray spectroscopy under ultra-high vacuum conditions because of the unique technical challenges.

What excites you about your work?

I love the science that we do at Northwestern to advance our understanding of new materials and methods for renewable energy generation. This work holds great potential for mitigating climate change and increasing prosperity. I’m also passionate about entrepreneurship and building connections between our research and the business world. That’s a project central to Northwestern’s mission, so I think a lot about how to bring innovation to the marketplace. I get to engage with some of the world’s top experts: academics, industry leaders, architects, and designers. It’s very collaborative.

Invention and innovation

Invention is a part of innovation, but we don’t necessarily have to invent something to be innovative.  I view innovation primarily  as a way of creating and capturing value. That could involve scientific discovery, or it could entail a new way of combining existing ideas or technologies to address a wicked problem like climate change in a fresh way.

As a chemist, I know the potential for expediting discovery through combining ideas. But breakthroughs can also come by combining the right people and teams to get the job done. The younger generation today typically embraces this approach — connect and collaborate, not command and conquer.

What inspired you to merge science and society?

Well, at Berkeley I was very interested in ethnic studies as well as chemistry. In fact, I almost dropped my chemistry major to become a protest movement organizer. It’s vitally important to connect people and ideas to solve big challenges. Now, as then, I want to help organize a movement that’s making a difference.

That’s what we’re doing at Northwestern. I’m excited about how SOFI can transform solar fuels research, including with our Knowledge Map project. This is a huge asset that the global research community really wants and can leverage to create breakthroughs. We’ve talked with leading research institutions, energy and technology companies, and scientific publishers, and have created a “taxonomy of ideas” that people in our field can use. We are making these ideas available in an accessible form. We’re not just talking about research on a nanoparticle that gets turned into a paper that’s turned into a PDF. We see this knowledge dissemination platform as an arena where others can analyze the data, conduct experiments, do more research, and bring better ideas to bear. It’s a big deal — I see it as the “Google Play” or “Apple App Store” of academic research. By standardizing a platform to capture and share data, we could create a scientific movement. Northwestern is really using its resources to make this transformative impact, and I’m grateful for that.


Dick Co