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‘I am curious and full of passion for understanding molecular chemistry’

Since May, Assistant professor BioTherapeutics Lu Su works in our faculty. Although she is still young, she already worked in many different fields and co-operated on two publications in big scientific journals. How did she become so successful and what motivates her to keep researching the possibilities in the molecular field?

As a kid Su was already trying to understand the world around her. ‘My mom always told me that I was curious about everything as a young girl. I kept asking my parents ‘why’ all the time. I still have that curiosity inside me now, together with a big passion for molecular chemistry. When I see a material or a phenomenon, it is not enough for me to just find it interesting. I need to understand and dig out why the material is like that or why the phenomenon happens. Only when I see it on the molecular level and understand it, I am happy.’

Breast cancer and oil spills

Su did her PhD at the Fudan University in China on fundamental research into polymers, organic compounds whose molecules consist of a sequence of identical, or similar, parts that are chemically linked together. Afterwards she went to the US to study more about polymers in different contexts. ‘There we developed functional nanoparticles that can address a target and degrade on demand.’

With polymers we can address so many different health and environmental issues

This concept can be used in many different application fields. ‘For example, for drug delivery in breast cancer treatment. But we also looked at a completely different aspect of it: addressing oil spills in the sea. We developed sugar-based magnetic nanoparticles that can recover oil from water. With polymers we can address so many different health and environmental issues.’

Organic batteries

That becomes clear once more when Su contributes to research into a metal-free, organic battery. ‘That was a completely different subject again. We looked at the possibilities for a metal-free, all- degradable and natural polymer to build batteries. Now batteries are built out of lithium, but that is neither healthy nor sustainable. We were able to build these polypeptide organic radical batteries. It’s a nice starting point to show what is possible. Hopefully, we can really produce and use these organic batteries one day.’

More fundamental research in the Netherlands

In 2017, her husband found a job in Delft. As she wanted to stay nearby him, they both moved to the Netherlands. She started working at the Eindhoven University of Technology where she did a lot of research on supramolecular chemistry. ‘Sometimes we fail to design a (cancer) drug delivery system, because we do not fully understand the interaction between the materials and our body. That is the reason I took a step back and started doing a lot of fundamental research. With better insights, we can also apply it better in the field.’

Publication in another big journal

During her time in TU Eindhoven, Su and her team accidentally discovered that their supramolecular watery solution turned into a hydrogel after diluting it. After the second dilution, it takes on a watery form again. ‘This phenomenon has not been described before and will have consequences in many areas in chemistry and biology. The finding is published in the scientific journal Science and coincidentally comes out today.’

Often it is not the research itself that takes the time but finding a great idea to begin with

Su can still remember the day that she got the idea to tackle this subject. ‘It was during a lockdown, so I had a lot of time to think. I got new ideas and proposed them to my supervisor. After lockdown I immediately went into the lab and finished the basics of the experiments within a month. These experiments demonstrated the transition from hydrogel to solution and, after a second dilution, from hydrogel to solution again. Often it is not the research itself that takes the time but finding a great idea to begin with.’  

A great work-life balance

Since May of this year, Su works as an assistant professor in the team of Professor Matthias Barz in LACDR. ‘He asked me to focus on getting new ideas for publications. I am very grateful that Matthias gives me the space and time to get my own line of research here.’

Working in the Netherlands is very different compared to China. ‘The balance between private life and work in the Netherlands is much better. Here we work less hours in the lab, but we do it more efficiently and prepare it well the day before. When I did my PhD in China, we often stayed in the lab from the morning until late at night. Then we did not have enough time to think. And exactly that space is needed in order to find great ideas.’

Many different fields working together

Su enjoys it to work at the University and have a lot of contact with students. ‘Everyone is really friendly, and the students are full of passion and curiosity. The nice thing about Leiden University is that there are many different fields coming together: science, physics, and medicine. These different views can broaden your horizon so much. And it is amazing to be able to collaborate with other fields.’

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