When Jeffrey Dick, ’13, was in third grade, he made a sketch of himself as an explorer, wearing an Indiana Jones hat and cutting through the lush jungle in search of things not yet discovered.
These days, Dick dons a pair of safety goggles in place of a fedora and wields sophisticated analytical and statistical tools instead of a machete. But his passion for exploring the unknown remains.
At just 28, he is an assistant professor in the chemistry department at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
In 2018, he was named to Forbes magazine’s “30 Under 30 for Science” list, recognizing top young scientists involved in groundbreaking and important work.
The magazine honored Dick — who grew up in Muncie and earned his bachelor’s in chemistry at Ball State — for his research on “applications of electrochemistry to nanoscale biological systems, which enables his team to measure and study single virus particles, proteins, and cells.”
If that all sounds a little technical, Dick boiled it down like this: “Electrochemistry is how electricity interacts with chemicals.”
Hope for health breakthroughs
“We are chemists who are interested in the applications of electrochemistry to nanotechnology and complex biological systems.”
Observing life processes on a nanoscale (a nanometer is a billionth of a meter) is not just about working at ever smaller dimensions. It enables scientists “to utilize the unique physical, chemical, mechanical, and optical properties of materials that naturally occur at that scale,” according to the U.S. National Nanotechnology Initiative.
“The nanoscale is rife with discovery, a frontier where you can be the first person in all of human history to make an observation,” said Dick, who hopes that his research will lead to breakthroughs in medicine.
By using and manipulating the size of very tiny electrodes, Dick and his students can study reactions occurring in living cells in real time and observe how those reactions affect delivery of a drug, an infection, carcinogenesis, or even aging.
““Diseases are incredibly complicated,” he said . “What we are interested in is studying single cells and understanding why they are different from one another and if we can exploit those differences for human health.”
Questions and answers
Jeffrey Dick had a question.
So, the first-semester freshman stayed late after his analytical chemistry course and approached Associate Professor James Rybarczyk.
Ten years later, Dick doesn’t remember the question. But he does remember Rybarczyk’s welcoming and helpful attitude. The two ended up talking for two hours, mostly about potential career paths in chemistry.
That memory from 2009 year stands out as an influential moment.
“I remember going home and telling my dad how impressed I was that a professor took so much time to talk to me,” Dick recalled. “It meant a great deal.”
Both his parents fueled his imagination “by helping me write stories, pointing out shapes in the clouds, and challenging my mind to make connections that were not so obvious.”
Another influence was his grandfather, a metallurgist at the now-closed Indiana Steel & Wire.
“My grandpa was not only passionate about science, but he was an extremely patient man — I can remember sitting on the phone with him for hours talking about science and the cosmos.”
At the same time, his father, who was a newspaper editor, influenced Dick’s desire to communicate complex science to the general public.
“We have to communicate research,” Dick said. “It’s our duty, because a lot of our funding comes from taxpayer dollars. We need to communicate our discoveries — not just to our scientific colleagues but to society as a whole.”
Taught to be persistent
Dick said he began his undergraduate education with plans to become a high school chemistry teacher. Instead, he fell in love with research and decided to pursue a career that would offer plenty of lab time.
For three years, Dick was a laboratory teaching assistant in Ball State’s chemistry department. He said he spent a lot of time running electricity through chemical solutions “to see if you made anything new.”
“Nature is very reluctant in giving up her secrets. At Ball State, I was taught to be persistent. To find an interesting problem and dig deep into that problem.”
After graduating from Ball State, Dick earned a doctorate from the University of Texas at Austin. He then spent a year as a postdoctoral scholar, also at UT Austin, before taking a position at UNC Chapel Hill.
Rybarczyk called Dick one of the best students he’s had in 44 years of teaching.
“I pretty much stayed out of his way and let him do what he does. He is just an extraordinary mind.”
Dick and his wife, Katya, have been married for four years and have a nearly 2-year-old daughter, Leeza.
Dick and his wife, Katya, have been married for four years. The couple met at Muncie Central High School — thanks to some matchmaking by Terry Nelson, ’73 MA ’78, who taught Dick’s journalism class. Katya was an exchange student from Barnaul, Siberia.
Even in high school, Dick was self-motivated, Nelson recalls. Academically, “he didn’t need external influences.” Asking Katya to prom was another story.
“He was shy,” says Nelson. “So, we had an earthquake drill. We were all in the hallway huddled together. When we stood up, I said, ‘Katya, Jeff has something to ask you.’ And then I ran away.”
The couple now has a nearly 2-year-old daughter, Leeza.
According to Nelson, who now teaches journalism at Indiana State, the teenage Dick wanted to be the best at everything he did. But he wasn’t egotistical or arrogant.
“He’s very reflective,” she said. “He welcomes analysis and criticism. He’s very unique in that way.”
As a new father and an educator, Dick thinks often about inspiring young people, the same way his family and teachers like James Rybarczyk inspired him. He encourages collaboration among his students, and he tells them, “Do not be afraid to fail.”
“The key to innovation is staying creative and persistent in the face of failure. This sometimes requires trying something that many have told you won’t work. I have learned that just because a person says something cannot be done doesn’t mean nature is in agreement.”