Lab Name: The Minteer Research Group

Researcher: Prof Shelley D. Minteer

Location: Salt Lake City, US

Website: https://chem.utah.


Prof Shelley D. Minteer
Prof Shelley D. Minteer

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Professor Shelley D. Minteer leads the The Minteer Research Group at the University of Utah. Her group is currently focused on bioelectrocatalysis for sensing, electrosynthesis, and energy conversion applications. They use a variety of electroanalytical and spectroscopic techniques to accomplish these goals. Laurie Winkless spoke to her to learn more about her work…

What is your background?

I am a chemist by training – I got my bachelor’s degree in chemistry and then followed that with a PhD in analytical chemistry, specialising in electrochemistry. I joined Utah as part of a special programme called USTAR, which aimed to bring entrepreneurial academics to campus. I’d been a faculty member at Saint Louis University for 11 years, and this felt like a really exciting opportunity, so I decided to move west. Over the past 8 years, I’ve been busy building interdisciplinary teams focused on electrochemistry.

What’s the makeup of your group?

I currently have 19 students and post-docs in my team, and they come from a range of disciplines – biology, chemistry, materials science, and engineering. If you look at our work and at our various skillsets, it becomes clear that no single person is an expert on everything. I’ve found that to be really helpful in terms of team-building – we all have a role to play and can learn from one another. Practically and intellectually too, it’s hugely helpful. We do everything from genetically engineering a biomaterial, through to engineering electrochemical devices, so that takes a range of expertise. We’re lucky enough to have that all within my lab.

What are the major themes of your research?

We have a general theme of using biology as an inspiration for electrochemical devices, whether they are batteries, fuel cells, solar cells, or sensors. The basic idea is that, when it comes to redox chemistry, biology has already figured out how to do this very well. If you’ve ever seen a small child consume chocolate, you’ll know that they can do energy conversion extremely efficiently! We want to learn from that. For example, we want to figure out how biological structures evolved over time to provide specific functions – like in the metabolism.

Taking biology as inspiration also provides us with different approaches to problems. As material scientists, we talk about taking a top-down or a bottom-up approach – either way, we tend to have a materials goal in mind. But biology has hardly ever had a materials goal. It’s much more likely to have a functional goal, and we find that really interesting.

What facilities and equipment do you use to do your job?

Electrochemical testing equipment – e.g. potentiostats and galvanostats – are the most common instruments in our lab. But because our work is so multidisciplinary, we need access to a lot of other equipment. From a materials science perspective, surface analysis tools are really important, i.e. XPS, TEM, and SEM. We also make biological materials and analyse them. That requires biological tools that you might only expect to see in a medical school, i.e. PCR, gel-electrophoresis, proteomics, and genomics.

We recently set a collaboration with Dr Matt Sigman, a colleague here at Utah, and that’s really expanding our computational work. We used to take a solely experimental approach to materials development, but working with Matt on predictive modelling is making us more efficient in our experiments.

What are you currently working on?

We’ve got two ongoing research projects. One is focused on using electrochemistry to make greener and more energy-efficient pharmaceuticals. Drug synthesis is not only expensive, but it also uses large quantities of organic solvents, purifications, oxidising agents, reducing agents, etc. In electrochemistry, we’ve learned to do multi-stage cascade reactions for energy conversion. We’re trying to translate that knowledge into the manufacture of drug compounds, with the ultimate aim of improving processes.

Our other area of focus is on understanding that relationship between structure and function, particularly when it comes to industrial processes like the Haber-Bosch. Traditional precious metal catalysts that are fantastic in other applications don’t work very well for nitrogen reduction – it’s incredibly hard to break that nitrogen bond. But biology does it efficiently. The problem is that it’s obviously not as stable as we’d like, so we’re trying to understand what’s so special in biology, and what’s going on structurally. If we can do that, we might be able to recreate it in another material. We’re at the early research stage of this work, so most of our industrial collaborations are with start-up companies rather than big chemical companies.

The Minteer group
The Minteer group

What’s the secret to running a successful lab?

One big thing for me is realising that a single management style just isn’t going to work for everyone – we’re a team, but we’re all individuals with specific needs. My main goal really is to provide a working environment that makes all of my students and post-docs feel safe and secure. I want them to know that failure is not only ok, it’s expected! Hiring good people is always important, as is being organised.

In addition, I think it helps to build a team of people with different areas of expertise. It makes the lab a fun place to be, and it helps the students with their career development. If they go on to get jobs outside of academia, they’re extremely likely to work in interdisciplinary teams, rather than a group of specialists. It’s helpful from a communication perspective too. In my lab, we’re all trying to achieve the same goal, but that requires us to find a way for the chemist, biologist and engineer to speak the same language.

What’s next for your research?

Biology has always been our inspiration, but early on, it was a bit nebulous – we’d see a property and try to figure out how to engineer a similar property in our material of choice. We’re now finally at the stage where we’ve learned enough of the biology to approach it as a materials scientist. We’re actually thinking about biological inspired synthesis tools, which I’m pretty excited about!

In the long term, I’m hoping that it’ll allow us to make materials with more specificity and stability. One of the big challenges we face is that biological materials regenerate – while that’s a good thing, it shows that they’re not particularly stable. But we hope that our approach can add stability back in, and apply that to more traditional materials.

Selected publications / links

  1. H. Chen, R. Cai, J. Patel, F. Dong, H. Chen, and S.D. Minteer, “Upgraded Bioelectrocatalytic N2 Fixation to Chiral Amine Intermediates,” Journal of the American Chemical Society, 2019, 141, 4963-4971.
  2. M. Yuan, M. Kummer, R. Milton, T. Quah, and S.D. Minteer, “Efficient NADH Regeneration by a Redox Polymer-Immobilized Enzymatic System,” ACS Catalysis, 9, 5486-5495.
  3. B. Bulutoglu, F. Macao, J. Bale, N. King, D. Baker, S.D. Minteer, and S. Banta, “Multimerization of an Alcohol Dehydrogenase by Fusion to a Designed Self-Assembling Protein Results in Enhanced Bioelectrocatalytic Operational Stability,” ACS Applied Materials & Interfaces, 2019, 11, 20022-20028.

Further information

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