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Samuel Thompson’s Personal Story


“Chemistry is an art form… it’s all about your perspective.”


Samuel brings a sense of play to his science research that he traces back to his love of the performing arts and his early exposure to science as a child. He also relates that his identity as a gay-man from a conservative Southern town helped shape him into a scientist.

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  • MIT title

    MIT undergraduate student (class of ’13) in Prof. Cathy Drennan’s Lab talking about research in Prof. Alice Ting’s Lab

  • In your current work, where do you find inspiration/real-word application to your research? What about science continues to inspire you?

    When I define myself as a “protein engineer” to my family, I usually start with the analogy that proteins are like robots. A robot, like any machine, is largely made up of simple elements such as gears, pistons, levers, screws, etc. that all fit together to make the robot. If we change the shape or form of some of those simple elements, we can change the function of the robot and give it new abilities. This is what we call a structure-function relationship, and it is true of proteins as well. Proteins are made of simple elements or motifs that repeat all throughout nature. Like a mechanic looking under the hood of your car to study the engine, if we can reveal the structure of a protein, we can get an idea of how it works and what it does and even what is malfunctioning. Furthermore, if we understand the functionally relevant parts of a protein’s structure, then we can alter that protein to fulfill a useful new function on the molecular scale. That in itself has world-changing potential.


    As we become increasingly aware of environmental issues, many of our scientific advancements are being rightly criticized as out of sync with nature. On something of a philosophical level, protein engineering is science drawing closer to nature. Nature has incredible power to problem-solve and heal itself over time. In that light, by looking to proteins as the platform for the next generation of scientific discovery, I like to see myself as creating nature’s own answer to pressing issues like carbon pollution and the energy crisis.

  • What is your favorite non-science book, blog, or magazine?

    When I was a kid, I would read my parents’ set of encyclopedias, so on my 8th birthday my grandparents bought me an almanac. I don’t think I have been more excited by a book since.

  • What kind of student were you in school?

    I was quiet, but I did everything: band, choir, debate, one-act play, UIL, yearbook. I was never particularly good at any of these, but I was interested in everything.

  • Did you know how to play a sport or musical instrument? Which one?

    At one point in time, I played the clarinet, but learned quickly that I was not coordinated enough to play anything complicated and that singing was much more natural to me.

  • What’s the #1 most played song on your iPod?

    I do not have an iPod. (It is probably the result of my contrarian nature exerting itself, although I did purchase my first MacBook recently.) The songs that I listen to most overall are probably 王菲 – 新客房 (Faye Wong – New Tenant) and 宇多田ヒカル – 桜ドロップス (Utada Hikaru – Sakura Drops). I am a sucker for anything melancholy and I rarely listen to music with English lyrics. (Again, this is probably a part of my contrarian nature.)

  • If you could learn to do anything, what would it be?

    I would learn more math. Surprisingly, there is very little math required for a chemistry degree beyond multi-variable calculus. Sometimes I open a book or an article and see a long equation with functions and variables I have never seen before, and I just balk right there. That bothers me. Math is like any foreign language, with a little exposure it becomes demystified.