Matt Francis

photo of Matt Francis

  • BS in Chemistry (1994)
  • PhD in Organic Chemistry, 1999 (Harvard)
  • Professor of Chemistry and Executive Associate Dean in the College of Chemistry at UC Berkeley
  • Dept. of Chemistry & Biochemistry's 2017 Gilbert and Joyce Gordon Lecture speaker: "New Chemical Reactions for Building Biomolecular Materials"

My Profession

"At Berkeley I teach both undergraduate and graduate courses on organic chemistry and chemical biology (i.e., biochemistry). I also do research on harnessing biomolecules for applications by combining them with synthetic materials. By doing this, we can take their properties and put them into another context, such as cancer targeting drug carriers, diagnostic imaging agents, clean water technologies, solar photosynthesis mimics, and much more.

"Ever since I was very young, playing with blocks and Legos, I was interested in chemistry. I think one of the reasons is I've always loved building things and putting things together. By doing so you can construct molecules, or nowadays biomolecules, that have the right properties.

"But even children come to learn that one of the things about building is having a plan. You know what the outcome should be, one that you know is supposed to be there, and you need to figure out how to put the pieces together in the right way. That planning, that intellectual challenge, is very prevalent in engineering and chemistry. The puzzle or question, 'How do you create a particular thing that has just the right properties?' has always fascinated and motivated me — and after a certain age, once you have the knowledge and confidence, you throw away the instructions.

"Having self-confidence is really a major factor for learning and doing research. It's the knowledge that even if you don't understand something right away, you will. I tell my students that they all have it in them to understand difficult material. For me, it all goes back to Miami — a frequent message I got here was that you may not have seen everything yet, but when you do, you will come to understand it.

"Miami has given me an important foundation for much of my teaching and research. Probably chief among them was being able to interact directly with faculty. Berkeley is a much larger university than Miami, and so we have larger classes, but I do my best to provide my students with opportunities to get to know the faculty as well as I did at Miami.

"When I was a Miami student, faculty let me into their labs and showed me how to use advanced instruments. Every day I worked with a faculty mentor who directly guided and helped me to become a better chemist. Although that kind of direct interaction is something that very few places can match, I care passionately about the quality of our education and try my best to continue that tradition."

Best Miami Experiences

"Most of my fondest memories involve the faculty and students who were here, many of whom I've kept in touch with over the years. Sometimes the most memorable times are also the most difficult times, in terms of the academic challenges I was given — faculty threw us very difficult things to learn, and very little time to do it! Looking back, it really was a blast. My time doing research in the lab of Dr. Gung, who was my research mentor, was when I really started to love the building blocks of organic chemistry.

"That sort of direct mentorship I received at Miami has been crucial to my education. One of the greatest aspects of my job is getting to work with people who are generally around 20-28 years old. Typically, they come to me saying, 'This is the career I want. How do I get there? What do I need to learn? What is the path?' I find it extremely rewarding to help them figure out that path at that relatively early stage of their lives. It's something that many people did for me here.

"My postdoctoral advisor, Jean Frechet, told me something that I'll never forget. He said that our product as a university is not publications or patents — it's people. As faculty, our job is to help create the best scientists that we possibly can and get them on their way to a career."

Miami and the Liberal Arts

"Chemistry is often called the central science because there are so many ways it can interface with other types of science. For pure chemistry, there are jobs in materials, in polymers, and in pharmaceuticals. If you want to interface with other fields, there are incredible opportunities with biology, physics, environmental science, and more at national labs, renewable energy companies, medical schools, and so on. Chemistry is also a great platform to learn medicine, practice law, and even start a business, for those who have the entrepreneurial spirit.

"I'm a strong believer in a liberal arts education, however, and as a Miami undergraduate, I took courses in art history, creative writing, Shakespeare, film. All these courses and many more helped increase my creativity and problem-solving power. When you learn your key discipline, you can utilize a variety of others to maximize what you can actually do. I would never want to go to a school where I just had to learn chemistry and math and nothing else!

"I tell students that they should pick classes that interest and excite them — as they get older, they'll never have that opportunity again at the same level. This is the time of your life when you're expanding. Don't look at the Miami Plan and course requirements as requirements — look at them as opportunities, and if you dread that, maybe you need to be more creative in how and what you choose. If you go about it right, you'll find the experience rewarding.

"In my research, I'm concerned with questions regarding the public health sector — clean water, resource recovery and management, antibiotics. We're working very hard to develop technologies that can improve the way that drugs are delivered.

"As executive associate dean at Berkeley's College of Chemistry, I'm also working on the sustainability of the university model. Everywhere you go, universities are under an enormous amount of financial strain, so we must develop models to deliver the highest quality education using budgets that are shrinking very rapidly, especially compared to inflation. How do we find the right moves and avoid the wrong moves in making universities more efficient? How do we provide both undergraduate and graduate students with world-class research facilities so they can get the right training when we don't have the money to build them? A lot of thought goes into these questions, but I'll always be grateful for the liberal arts education I've received that is helping me tackle them."

Advice to Students

"Younger people often get the impression that everything is supposed to happen according to a plan. Usually they see somebody and assume they had a clear path and did all the steps the right way, leading them to an awesome career. But if you asked them, almost none of these people would say they really followed any sort of path — it's more about being flexible, open-minded, hard-working, and being able to go with the flow.

"What I tell young people is to follow their noses — if you find something that you love and feel passionate about, do it. Don't restrict yourself or play it safe, because if you're not happy at it, it's not going to be the ideal career. There's a lot of exciting stuff to do out there, and the world changes very quickly.

"There really isn't one path to success. You need to think about yourself, what you like, and what you want to do — and then customize your own path from that perspective."

[March 2018]