Alex Buck

PhD in Organic Chemistry 2014

Alex Buck (chemistry ’10, Ph.D. organic chemistry ’14) still remembers the day his high school chemistry teacher set off the fire alarms in his school lab.

“He showed us an experiment where he ‘sacrificed’ a gummy bear to the ‘chemistry gods’ by dropping a gummy bear into a melted solid. It caused flames to shoot from the test tube and set off the fire alarms.”

The visual experiment also sparked Buck’s interest in science, and he has been pursuing the possibilities of chemistry ever since.

“Once I learned more about chemistry, and organic chemistry in particular, I realized how well it helped me understand and explain the everyday interactions in biology, polymers and textiles, and the environment. Chemistry seemed to be the basis of all other sciences, and the desire to invent new chemicals and materials caused me to pursue chemistry.”

After earning his bachelor’s degree in chemistry at Iowa State in 2010, Buck also chose ISU for graduate school due to its reputation as a top research institution, its state-of-the-art classrooms and laboratories, and his interest in a new professor’s lab.

“Dr. Arthur Winter came to Iowa State right as I was making my decisions,” Buck said. “His plans for his research group included molecular switches that could target and deliver drugs or other cargo on a molecular level, like a Rube Goldberg device.”

Buck’s graduate research at Iowa State focused on developing organic molecules capable of switching their electronic state without the input of radicals. This research can be used to enhance MRI techniques and make EPRI more widely used.

“Ultimately, this research helped prepare me by honing my skills as a researcher, independent thinker, and leader,” Buck said. “The most valuable part of a Ph.D. to me, is the development of independent thinking, knowing how to get the answers to questions, and the desire to constantly learn.”

Today, Buck is the industrial innovation manager for the Iowa Corn Promotion Board, where he manages a diverse portfolio of projects in research, IP, and technology commercialization. He also discusses agricultural and biochemical research with farmers throughout Iowa.

“The most intriguing part of our current work is developing a process to make glycols directly from corn,” Buck said. “Monoethylene glycol (MEG) is used in everything from antifreeze to soda bottles to carpet to polyester clothing.”

This research creates a potential market to add to the more than 4,000 items corn is already used for, Buck said, and strengthens Iowa’s economy by increasing demand for agricultural commodities and displaces petroleum and other fossil fuels in plastics, fuels, and other chemicals. It is a position he was well prepared for, thanks to exceptional ISU faculty who provided him with opportunities to grow while in graduate school.

“My major professor, Dr. Arthur Winter, made a huge impact on me,” Buck said. “He allowed me to take on challenging projects and introduced me to computational chemistry.”

Buck also credits George Kraus, University Professor of Chemistry, with helping him become a better teacher and enhancing his appreciation of organic synthesis with test problems like “the Final Molecule.” In addition, Sarah Cady, associate ccientist in the Department of Chemistry, taught Buck how to use the EPR, an instrument that was brand new to Iowa State at the time.

“The best part of ISU’s Chemistry Department was the camaraderie I developed with labmates in the Winter Lab and friends I made throughout the department,” Buck said.