Summer 2011

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Features
Dennis Hu
Photo by Ray Whitehouse (J12)

Dennis Hu

Hometown: I grew up in Skokie, Ill., but my family now lives in Canton, Mich. 
Major: Chemistry

Decisive moment: When I was a freshman, I started doing crew. I was trying to manage research and rowing, both of which have daily time commitments. I wasn’t able to give 110 percent to either one, and eventually my adviser, Professor Regan Thomson, put his foot down and asked, “Do you want to be a rower or do you want to be a chemist?” Faced with the choice, I realized I really wanted to do chemistry.

Favorite Northwestern class? A Norris salsa dancing minicourse. My fiancée and I met during one freshman year. That’s how we started dating.

Top accomplishment: In 2010 Professor Thomson and I synthesized the antibiotic chemical “streptorubin B” starting from basic petrochemicals. The study of this compound and compounds like it might lead to the clinical development of antibiotics with new modes of action. Our work was recently featured on the cover of the Journal of the American Chemical Society.

Greatest adventure? Chemical synthesis is sort of like rock climbing. You start with material that you can buy (call it “A”) and through a series of reactions, transform it into “B,” “C,” etc., until you’ve made the compound you want — call it “Z.” These reactions don’t always work, and you “fall down” and have to start over. 
Two years ago I started trying to synthesize streptorubin (call it “Z”), a famously red molecule. It took several months to figure out how to make the molecule that comes right before it (call it “Y”), but finally, one evening, I found myself with a small solution of Y. I was nervous to try the next step because, if it failed, I’d have to spend another two weeks or so making more Y.  The solution of Y was colorless and looked like water, but when I added the final ingredients to it, the entire solution burst into a brilliant, glowing blood-red color. I knew immediately that I had completed the synthesis — reached the top of the mountain. 

What’s next? Research in synthetic chemistry at the University of Cambridge as a Churchill Scholar next year. I’ll be trying to develop a method for the synthesis of new antibiotics called piperazines, which bacteria have not yet developed resistance against.

Your dream job? I’d love to continue doing research and to teach as a professor at an institution like Northwestern.

Any regrets?  My younger brother’s dream school was the University of Michigan. Unfortunately, he didn’t get in, but he applied to transfer. One day he sent me his essays and asked me to read over them. I was busy at the time and told him that I would read it later. About two weeks later, I suddenly remembered and asked, “When are these due?” He said, “Yesterday.”  Fortunately, he ended up getting in without my help! Unfortunately, this also means he's a Wolverine.