Meet New Head of Chemistry, Mark Peczuh

The seasoned chemist discusses the study of ‘stuff,’ raves about his department’s faculty, and pits AI against Taylor Swift

Mark Peczuh

Mark Peczuh, professor and head of chemistry, in the Chemistry Building on Feb. 5, 2024. (Bri Diaz/UConn Photo)

How long have you been in the UConn Department of Chemistry?
I arrived in 2001. The new Chemistry Building was only a few years old then — it was a brand spanking new building. I had a beautiful new laboratory space, all new and pristine. It’s a really special building — it was then and it still is now. When we had a 20-year anniversary event for the building in 2019, the original architects came back for that event because they love the building that much. We’re still super proud of it. 

We also have a periodic table display with well over 1,500 pieces and artifacts assembled by former department head Christian Brückner. Each piece has its own story. It’s incredible.  

How has the department changed since you arrived?
There’s so much positive momentum and positive energy. The creativity of our junior faculty just keeps getting better over time. Now that I’m head, I’m learning more about what everyone is doing, and they’re doing cutting edge work incorporating all of these new tools in their projects. It makes me want to learn from them. I think, wow, I like the way you approach questions, and I want to follow your lead. It’s almost like a rebirth.

That’s part of the magic of academic departments. You bring in new people, and they’re fresh and eager. They buoy and bolster all us old fogies that have been here for a while. Their sophistication and caliber of their research blow me away. I was pretty good when I was a junior faculty member, but they are just so good in terms of creativity, sophistication, and rigor.  

Do you have particular goals for the department? 
People always talk about critical mass, which is when you have a sufficient amount of fissile material to propagate a chain reaction. Here in Chemistry, we’re a few pieces away from hitting that critical mass where things just explode in terms of productivity on every front: the research that we’re doing, the quality of the teaching, and engaging the general public. So we want to bring in some new faculty colleagues that will help bring that together.  

Another goal is to broaden and diversify our graduate students. Our grad students are focused on research, but they also want to do service. They’re trying to bring undergraduates and graduate students together in an informal way to help undergraduates understand the world of research in terms of chemistry. It’s great for their professional development.   

The graduate students also do a lot of teaching, right?
Definitely. Chemistry is one of those classes that is taken not just by majors, but by many students. It’s important for all areas of science, and for those who want to go on to medicine  or other health professions. About 95 percent of students we teach are not majors. So, introductory chemistry classes are a big university service. The teaching assistants are the ones who personalize those large lectures, when students go to a lab or study section. That’s so important to our teaching mission. We have about 130 graduate students!  

And there’s a real call within the department to make the undergraduate experience the best it can be. We’re trying to move from a ‘sage on the stage’ to a ‘guide on the side’ model, meaning we want to incorporate more learning by doing, with an instructor helping you.  

Tell us a little about your research. 
My group designs and builds small molecules that we want to interact with a biological target. It’s similar to lead compound design in a small pharmaceutical company. We don’t produce drugs, but we show others what is a worthwhile target for a drug. We take inspiration from nature.  

We look at something that would be an interesting structure in its interactions, and say, how do we build that? Then we go through the process of synthesis, where we assemble a complex compound from simpler ones. Then, usually through collaboration, we ask: does it have the effect that we wanted it to?  

There are interactions between sugars and proteins that are deleterious to people. For example, when they come together with a human cell they are often the cause of urinary tract infections. So, we’re working on an interaction that could lead to a therapeutic for urinary tract infections. 

What do students who study chemistry go on to do for a career? 
Many of my students work in pharmaceutical companies, both small ones and large ones like Pfizer and Boehringer Ingelheim. Others go into academia. In fact, my first graduate student is now a full professor at Davidson College, and she just came back to give a lecture here. There’s a special place you have in your heart for your first grad student. We had a great time learning together. 

Why is it useful and important for students who are not majors to learn about chemistry?
Chemistry is the study of matter and its transformations — so it’s the study of stuff. It’s a way of understanding how physical things interact with other physical things and with biological things. It’s a great context for thinking or seeing the world.  

Chemistry is also an experimental science, which means you guess, test, analyze, and then usually repeat the process. If you get your hands dirty doing it, you begin to understand that the process requires creativity, rigor, attention to detail, a broad view, and a specific view. So the transferable value comes out of the process.  

Do students still do things like making aspirin in a chemistry lab?
Absolutely, they do! That’s a really cool experience. That can be a transformative experience because you take one type of material and you convert it into another type of material that can help someone. That’s a cool power to feel that you have. 

Are there common misconceptions about chemistry? 
I think the biggest one is that students often think chemistry is all known, that it’s this dusty old discipline where it’s all in the books, so we just memorize things, and that’s that. We show them that there’s a lot that’s not known, and that we’re still trying to figure out. There’s as much or more that we don’t know in the world of chemistry as what we think we already know. 

What are some new and exciting emerging areas of chemistry?
I remember the moment, in December, 2022, when one of my colleagues came to me and said “GPT has just changed the world. You just don’t know it yet.” And over the course of 2023, it played out exactly that way.  

Several of my colleagues here in chemistry are using machine learning and AI as tools to help them understand their chemistry. They look at super complex mixtures and say, which of these things are alike and which are not? That can help you tell what’s happened to a cell in response to a stimulus, or to describe the molecular signature of whatever environment they’re observing. Or they’re using AI to organize numerous data sets to identify conditions for building complex compounds as efficiently as possible. 

Do you think AI was the biggest idea of 2023?
My wife and I had an argument about this. We were thinking about the person or the idea of the year. I said that it’s got to be AI. She’s like, ‘Nope, it was Taylor Swift.” That sort of irked me. But there was one conference a couple of years ago where I did a number of presentations and posters, and I named them all after Taylor Swift songs. ‘Shake It Off’ was one of the titles. So, it all comes back to T. Swift, even for chemists!   

What’s something you want people to know about your department?
It’s about my department but also about UConn in general: there’s this whole cadre of people all over campus who are doing awesome work and are the foundation of everything we do. If we’re a restaurant, they’re the back of the house. It’s the people like the administrative staff, the technical staff, and our teaching laboratory services staff. They do so much, and they help our grad students and our grad trainees and our teaching assistants and our undergraduates. They’re doing heavy lifts every day.   

And they’re doing it because it’s helping the world be a little bit better because they love it. I gravitate towards those people because I think that they’re sometimes unsung, and they’re critical to research, teaching, and engagement.   

What’s your favorite spot on campus? 
On the fourth floor [of the Chemistry Building], just off the atrium, there’s the chemistry graduate student lounge. It’s primarily for first-year students, but others go there and have lunch together, and we have social functions there. It’s got a panel of huge windows looking out over Horsebarn Hill — literally just hill and sky. It’s breathtaking and soothing. If I’m stressed, I’ll just go up there and take a peek because it changes over time, with the seasons. I really, really like that spot.