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The Crucial Element

Louis Kuo’s research may help reverse the world’s impending phosphorus shortage, but many say his true legacy is his mentorship of students.

Professor Louis Kuo Credit: Robert ReynoldsWhile many climate change discussions focus on reducing our dependence on fossil fuels like oil and natural gas, there’s another, quieter challenge lurking: The Earth is running out of phosphorus.

The resource is set to peak, meaning the demand will outweigh the supply, by 2040. That’s a full 10 years before the world is expected to see a shortage of fossil fuels.

Why does phosphorus matter? The mineral is a key component of fertilizers, batteries, animal feed, and food preservatives. A phosphorus shortage would lead to a decline in plant growth and reduce the food supply for the earth’s 7.5 billion people. There is also an established connection between high phosphate levels in the body and many neurological diseases.

Unlike fossil fuels, phosphorus has no substitute—no solar or wind energy to replace it. There is no manufactured, synthetic version. It is not renewable. When it’s gone, it’s gone.

Could Louis Kuo, professor of chemisty, be the one to find the solution?

Louis Kuo’s interest in phosphates stretches back long before he joined the chemistry department at Lewis & Clark. His doctoral thesis at Northwestern University centered on organometallics, chemical compounds that contain at least one bond between a carbon atom and a metal. The compounds are used in research and to catalyze chemical reactions for polymers, pharmaceuticals, and other products. Kuo was investigating whether the compounds could bind to biomolecules, such as DNA.

Credit: Shutterstock by Magnetix

Kuo’s research also looks for ways to recycle the phosphate toxins, creating a first-of-its-kind pathway for regenerating the resource before it runs out. Last year, Lewis & Clark submitted a patent for the polymer-based material, which, if granted, would be the third to result from Kuo’s research.

He kept seeing an extraneous result, a small signal off to the side that didn’t make any sense. The artifact didn’t have any bearing on the research question at hand, so Kuo ignored it and forged ahead. He completed his PhD and was hired as a professor of chemistry at Lewis & Clark. But still, the tiny signal flashed in his periphery.

One day at a conference, Kuo mentioned it to a colleague who said, “Maybe it’s not an artifact. Maybe you’re breaking down the phosphate portion of the DNA.”

That seemingly simple response sparked more than 25 years of evolving research, much of it shaped by grants from the National Science Foundation.

“I’m very grateful, not just for the funding, but for [the NSF’s] ideas and comments and criticisms that steered my research,” Kuo says. “I originally wanted to just do organometallics like everybody else. They told me I had to find a niche, something unusual that no one else is doing.”

Most recently, Kuo has been using a new class of polymer-based materials to break down agricultural pesticides like Roundup to make the chemicals safer. The phosphate toxins used in agricultural pesticides and herbicides can be damaging to animals and humans, and have been implicated in neuro-degenerative diseases.

Kuo’s research also looks for ways to recycle the phosphate toxins, creating a first-of-its-kind pathway for regenerating the resource before it runs out. Last year, Lewis & Clark submitted a patent for the polymer-based material, which, if granted, would be the third to result from Kuo’s research.

In January, Kuo received the Oregon Academy of Science’s 2019 Outstanding Oregon Scientist Award. The honor recognizes not only his significant contributions to scientific research, but also his work fostering the next generation of scientists, including more than 50 undergraduate and high school students Kuo has mentored during his 25 years at Lewis & Clark. Their work isn’t for practice on the sidelines; it makes Kuo’s discoveries possible.

“A lot of undergraduates don’t understand that we have a phosphorus depletion around the corner; their eyes are opened when they see the evidence,” Kuo says. “That appeals to undergraduates. We teach them not only basic fundamental knowledge but also how it connects to the real world.”

Kuo’s students are true collaborators, designing experiments, conducting data analysis, publishing in journals, and presenting at national conferences. When the department acquired a single crystal X-ray diffractometer to analyze molecular structures and chemical compounds, Kuo’s students were the first to use it—a rare opportunity for undergraduate researchers.

Louis Kuo's students are true collaborators who conduct research as well as publish and present. ...Louis Kuo's students are true collaborators who conduct research as well as publish and present. From left: Steephen Bokouende BA ’19 (seated), Cayden Bullock BA ’19, Professor Kuo, and JD Alibrando BA ’19. Credit: Robert Reynolds

Eventually, some students even bring their own questions, skills, and ideas to the lab, launching new pathways to discovery while simultaneously shaping the future of Kuo’s.   

“The students become well trained, and it gets to a point where they sort of take intellectual ownership of the project,” he says. “Some students take the initiative to do library research, finding out what other people have done and the chemistry behind it. At that stage, I think they’ve matured into full-blown researchers.”

• • •

Anne Bentley, chair of the chemistry department, says it’s apparent how much the students respect Kuo and enjoy working in his lab.

“He’s a role model for many of us in the department,” she says. “Someone who has steady, constant productivity in terms of research, and also a steady, constant group of students that he’s working with and mentoring.”

Bentley also says that Kuo is known for his understated sense of humor. “When students mention his humor, it raises my opinion of them, too,” she says. “Because I can tell that they’ve been listening carefully and can tell how funny he is.”

Few of Kuo’s undergraduate mentees follow him into a career in phosphorus-related research. Some have pursued careers in education, medicine, and business, but just as many take unexpected paths (one student won a Fulbright to study musicology in Austria). No matter where his former students have landed, they all acknowledge how Kuo’s quiet demeanor and wit have helped them navigate life’s challenges and build the confidence they needed to be successful.

Laura Stratton BA ’05 was a nontraditional student when she enrolled at Lewis & Clark— a mid-30s professional, married with two preschool-aged children. She remembers sitting in Kuo’s organic chemistry lecture during her first semester when she received a call from her son’s cardiologist, informing her that he would eventually need surgery.

Kuo’s a role model for many of us in the department. Someone who has steady, constant productivity in terms of research, and also a steady, constant group of students that he’s working with and mentoring.” Anne BentleyAssociate Professor and Chair of the Chemistry Department

“Essentially, I had to watch my toddler go into congestive heart failure before he could have the surgery,” she says. “Louis Kuo helped me work with all of my professors to complete courses or take an incomplete and take the final exam the following month. Time and time again, he advocated for me so that I could succeed in school and also be a parent and nurse for my medically fragile son.”

Another former student, Yusef Shari’ati BA ’12, had his sights set on teaching and spent a few years as an adjunct faculty member teaching organic chemistry labs at Lewis & Clark. Sometimes, Shari’ati and Kuo would talk teaching philosophies and about the interplay between research and instruction.

“One of the things we discussed was how to let students grow,” Shari’ati says. “You have to shift your mindset away from doing the experiments to overseeing them. That’s actually hard to do. There’s always an urge to prove yourself and show that you have all the answers, but that doesn’t help. Certainly, you must guide students, but you must also know when to stop and let them experience the science for themselves.”

Time will tell whether Kuo’s research will lead to new sources of phosphorus or reverse our course before we face a shortage. But his lessons of kindness and patience—and the generations of curious thinkers who follow him—might be his most enduring legacy.

“It sounds like I’ve followed a deliberate path, that my whole research program was designed from the beginning,” Kuo says. “But the bottom line is, I couldn’t have anticipated writing these long-term, overly ambitious proposals. I’ve always broken down my research into bite-sized objectives that can be accomplished with students in one academic year or one summer. When you put them all together, they tell a full story.”

Kim Catley is a writer and editor in Richmond, Virginia.

Life Lessons From Louis

#1: Never believe you’re an expert.

Yusef Shari’ati always knew he wanted to be a teacher—maybe even a university professor. Some of his professors were pragmatic, explaining that the field was competitive and he should have a backup plan. But Kuo was always encouraging.

“Dr. Kuo and I had discussions about teaching and the best ways to go about it,” Shari’ati says. “I was impressed by the fact that he never considers himself an expert, even as a veteran educator. Rather he continuously works to improve his teaching. I realized that your success as a teacher can only be measured in that of your students, so you should never become complacent in that role. There’s always more to learn, even for teachers.”

—Yusef Shari’ati BA ’12 is now an NSF graduate fellow in the Department of Chemistry at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

#2: Research is never clean.

“In lab courses, the experiments are designed to have a specific result. What I learned with Dr. Kuo is that research isn’t always clean or linear. I found that experiments, even those of the best design, do not always give you the results that you expect. However, you gain just as much knowledge from failure as you do from success. Rather than hitting a wall and calling it quits, researchers often pursue a different direction. That can be just as fruitful.”

—Alli Akagi BA ’09 earned her PhD in chemistry from the California Institute of Technology and now teaches chemistry at Mayfield Senior School, an all-girls independent school in Pasadena, California.

#3: Be cautious, but don’t be afraid of mistakes.

“He taught me to be methodical and exacting. Oxygen-free chemistry takes patience and exactness to get right. He taught me to check and double-check that the equipment is correctly set up; if it is done incorrectly, pressure can build up and become explosive.

“He also taught me that it is OK, and even expected, to fail in chemistry. We learn from our failures. On one of my first days in his lab, an expensive piece of lab glassware slipped from my hands. He laughed it off and said that it happens to everyone.”

—Laura Stratton BA ’05 is now a project manager for a polymer company in Tucson, Arizona.

#4: Prepare for the unexpected.

Kristina Dill BA ’16 first met Kuo in 2012, when she was a 10th grader in his general chemistry course. She continued in his lab that summer through the Saturday Academy’s Apprenticeship in Science and Engineering, and she enrolled full time at Lewis & Clark that fall. She spent all four years working in Kuo’s lab, even coauthoring two journal articles and presenting at the 2015 American Chemical Society National Meeting. 

“I learned a great deal, not only regarding laboratory techniques, data analysis, experimental design, and writing about and presenting research, but also broader lessons about the process of conducting scientific research,” she says. “His approach highlighted the importance of being flexible and accepting of the fact that research may ultimately progress in a direction different from what was originally anticipated.”

For Dill, that lab lesson became a life lesson. Last year, she received a Fulbright Combined Grant to study, teach, and conduct research on early music printing in Salzburg, Austria. She says Kuo’s lessons also applied to musicology research—and she still plans to pursue graduate work in the sciences.

#5: Get in the trenches.

Nick Tadros BA ’04 says that Kuo was never one to assign research or experiments and then sit in his office while students did the work. “He was down in the trenches with us,” Tadros says. “We were working together, figuring things out together. I really appreciated and respected that.”

Tadros—who is now a urologic surgeon, as well as an assistant professor of urology and the director of men’s health and male fertility at Southern Illinois University—has applied that same model when training residents and physician-scientists.

“I think people work better, they’re more likely to succeed, and they’re happier when they have a mentor who works alongside them, as opposed to above them.”

By the Numbers: Kuo’s 25 Years at Lewis & Clark

  • 2 patents (with a 3rd currently under review)
  • 24 publications with 28 undergraduate coauthors
  • $1.2 million in external competitive funding with more than $500,000 of it coming since 2014
  • 4 National Science Foundation grants
  • 50+ undergraduate and high school mentees, including 4 Goldwater Scholars and 1 Beckman Scholar; 2 NSF Graduate Research Fellows; and 1 Rhodes Scholar finalist
  • 2040: The year the world is expected to have a phosphorus shortage, unless researchers like Kuo find an alternative
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