Faculty conversations: David Wenkert
Chemistry Nobel Laureate Robert Burns Woodward left 699 pages of notes in his Harvard University office when he died in 1979, an 8-inch stack written on everything from photocopy paper to hotel stationery.
The world knew nothing of the novel ideas on superconductivity that captivated Woodward for the last years of his life, until recently. David Wenkert, now an associate professor in MSU’s Department of Physiology and the Department of Internal Medicine, worked under Woodward as a graduate student and had an early brush with a concept that is still unrealized.
Around 1976, Wenkert approached the chemist for help on a difficult project, and Woodward confidentially suggested a different one — attempting to create an organic superconducting polymer.
Only a handful of metals or ceramics have such properties, and only at extremely cold temperatures. A material that at normal temperatures can conduct large amounts of electricity for long periods of time without losing energy as heat offers huge potential for energy transmission.
"He drew out a number of these structures. He gave me some of the basics of the theory behind why he thought these would be possibly superconductive. And then I went back to think about it as to whether I’d want to work on it," Wenkert said.
But Wenkert took a pass on the project, eventually going on to medical school, an internal medicine residency and an endocrinology fellowship. He now runs an endocrinology clinic, does work with cancer and infectious diseases and designs drugs that may be effective against malaria. He has used cancer drugs to kill parasites and created a medical study abroad program in Dakar, Senegal.
But Wenkert never forgot his conversations with Woodward, and other scholars now are getting a glimpse of Woodward’s intellect thanks to two recent journal publications, one of which includes Wenkert’s reminiscences.
"I thought it was an incredible opportunity to see somebody’s whose mind was basically — I mean, the guy was a genius — and to see how he developed these ideas," Wenkert said. "For me, it truly was the most intellectually-stimulated interaction I ever had with him."