By Jeffrey Atwood ’13, thurj Staff

Since his youth, Adam Cohen’s passion has been for scientific inquiry. Growing up in Manhattan, the current Assistant Professor of Physical Chemistry at Harvard remembers picking up pieces of electronics from the garbage, taking them home, and trying to fix them. In seventh grade, he enrolled in a graduate level course in electronics, which led him to build his own lab in his house, complete with all the tools to build complex circuits. Despite his intense interest in science, Cohen does not only focus on his research. Electronics led to physics, which he studied as an undergraduate at Harvard. There he participated in several extracurricular activities: he traveled abroad in Ecuador as part of Let’s Go, a travel writing program, taught science to young children with the ExperiMentors, a PBHA group which still exists today on campus. He also worked in George Whiteside’s chemistry lab for all four years as an undergraduate. Coming back to Harvard as a professor showed Cohen a different side of the university: “As an undergrad I was unaware of all the graduate students, but there are just as many graduate students as undergraduate students, and there is a whole other part of the university going on independent of the classes.”
Cohen’s chemistry interest came from an unlikely path. As a senior in high school, he built a scanning tunneling microscope as an entry to a science contest. This led him to work in a lab in MIT, helping to develop new scanners to detect land mines, which in turn sparked an interest in physical chemistry. In Whiteside’s lab, he continued to research sensor technology. Concentrating in both chemistry and physics, he described his research as “applying physical insights to chemical problems.” After earning Ph.D.’s from both Oxford and Stanford, he returned to Harvard as an assistant professor of chemistry. Even though he has an extensive resumé, Cohen still finds time for his non-research pursuits. Graduate student Yiqiao Tang stated that one the reasons he was attracted to the lab was Cohen’s devotion to his students and researchers.

Despite the change from building electronics at home, to working in a lab at Harvard, the same desire to go beyond the bounds of human knowledge motivates his research. “To make a prediction, do an experiment, and see that prediction born out in reality is amazing,” Cohen explains. His research covers a wide variety of topics, from the theoretical to the practical. For example, one of his current projects is to gain a basic understanding of mucus and how bacteria can travel through it, a subject that the scientific world knows surprisingly little about. Much of his research, as he puts it, is to “develop tools that other scientists can use in order to make discoveries. We build new ways of visualizing molecules, new ways of controlling their positions, and new ways of controlling their internal states and reactivity.” Despite being a relatively young professor, he has already received several prestigious awards, including the Camille and Henry Dreyfus Award for New Faculty, and the DARPA Young Faculty Award.

One of Professor Cohen’s most unique projects however, is not research-based. Over the summer of 2009, Professor Cohen and other scientists traveled to Liberia to try and improve the quality of science education in that country. Cohen’s connection with Liberia is personal. The adviser for his high school science club was from Liberia, and many times, Cohen would see him collecting school supplies to send to his family in Liberia. The two formed a personal connection, and as a professor at Harvard, he invited him to speak, and this gave him the idea to travel to Liberia and see what he could do to help.

In Liberia, the team met with civic and religious leaders and examined the nation’s educational facilities, from its elementary schools to the sole medical school in the country. They even gave sermons at local churches explaining the benefits of science education. One of their main findings was that much of the aid to Liberia is wasted. The equipment sent can’t be used, either because the citizens don’t know how to use it, or because they don’t have the infrastructure. Together, the group focused on ways to improve scientific literacy without the equipment and teaching aids that universities in the United States take for granted. Professor Cohen’s group showed the students at the local medical university how to do a DNA extraction on a tomato, which Professor Cohen called, “probably the first DNA purification ever done in Liberia.” They also tried to teach the people about basic issues that were relevant to the local community, such as the germ theory of disease and malnutrition. He plans to make a return trip in the summer to lead a workshop at the University of Liberia in the hopes that these people will eventually teach others and reeducate a nation that lost its youngest generation of scientists, doctors, and teachers to civil war.

With so many demands, Professor Cohen still manages to make time to take care of his lab members and students. He throws parties and cooks for his researchers at his house. Perhaps his most important contribution to his researchers is to teach them to be unafraid to be curious, and pursue their ideas. Graduate student Yiqiao Tang summed up his lesson as, “Premature is not such a bad thing; it’s always good to talk to people, and to hear their comments about this idea.” As a scientist with a strong connection to students, Professor Cohen has one word of advice for young future scientists: “Work in a lab.” However, he follows up with a word of caution: “There’s an issue that people sometimes run into: that doing well in science classes here has very little to do with being a good scientist…The key to being a good scientist is asking the right questions.”