Joseph Beckwith came to Princeton with a Swiss National Science Foundation Early Postdoc Fellowship and a surfeit of curiosity about how life works, the answer to which he always suspected is to be found in the chemical realm. Joining the Yang Group in 2020 from the University of Geneva, where he got his Ph.D., and Durham University in the United Kingdom, where he got his undergraduate degree, Beckwith’s research focuses on how single reactions are changed and influenced by complex biological environments. Here, he discusses the challenging work he enjoys under the advisement of Professor of Chemistry Haw Yang.
WHAT DOES A TYPICAL DAY LOOK LIKE FOR A POSTDOC?
The sort of general format of a normal day is that you’re doing experiments, analyzing experiments at the same time, and thinking about what that means in the wider context as you plot a way forward. Sometimes you have to spend a little bit of time to do more complicated analyses and write those up. Most of our data are quite statistically noisy, so you have to think about rigorous and clever ways to analyze that. And then there’s playing around with instruments. I did my microscope alignment last week, so I’m not doing any of that today, but that is part of it.
WHY DID HAW’S RESEARCH DRAW YOU IN?
We’re very interested in the fundamental physical chemistry problem of, how does a chemical reaction happen in a particular sort of complicated environment, and how do you investigate the dynamics of chemical reactions? Those are the central questions of everything that we do. Because we use different techniques, the questions we could answer in my previous lab were somewhat simpler; it had to be a very homogenous environment. But I became more curious about how these difficult environments are going to affect the chemical reactions. Haw’s lab is all about developing new things to try and answer this really big, really difficult question that you can only really get at with the new instrumentation the lab is developing. I’m still interested in the same questions that I was working on with my Ph.D. research, but now it’s being able to apply it to slightly larger things and getting at the central question with these cool techniques.
THE YANG GROUP IS DOING RESEARCH THAT FEW OTHERS ARE DOING. CAN YOU EXPLAIN?
We’re building spectroscopic techniques that no one else is building. There is very, very little 3D tracking done in real time. The idea that’s central to what we’re doing is looking at that single molecule so you can really see this individual reaction happening. But on top of that, Haw came up with this really cool 3D tracking thing that we use so you can couple looking at this single reaction to where is it in space and how it is moving. And you can also couple in other spectroscopic ideas, like when do the photons arrive at our detectors. Or you can look at what sort of colors this little probe is emitting. It’s this new, cool, spectroscopic idea of really looking at the chemical reaction of a single thing and how it’s moving and how its motion is coupling to its actual chemistry. And developing these tools is really developing a totally new spectroscopy modality to tackle problems that no one has tackled. I think that’s very exciting. Haw has very, very original ideas.
WHY DID YOU CHOOSE PRINCETON CHEMISTRY – WAS IT THE P.I. OR THE PLACE?
It was primarily Haw, because Haw has this really super cool approach. He’s also unique in that, in addition to doing these experiments, he’s very rigorous in how he thinks about analyzing the data. He’s very solid theoretically. So you have this very interesting, unified approach of incredibly detailed and impressive experimental knowledge, and then you have to think on the same level of, well, how do we think about his data, and then how do you think about the interpretation? Having that unified approach is very rare and impressive.
And basically, every single person in Europe whom I talked to about Haw would always say to me, “Oh, you’re going to do super-cool experiments.”
WHAT OTHER FACTORS INFLUENCED YOUR CHOICE?
The Department’s very welcoming and they make sure everyone fits in. That was secondary to me, but you can’t discount that. The ideal thing you want as a postdoc is to be working on cool stuff that’s going to excite you intellectually, but you also want to do cool work in a nice place.
IS THE WORK CHALLENGING?
Haw does these difficult projects with really big questions, and I think sometimes that makes students a bit nervous. It is going to be a very rigorous education. As a student, you have to be prepared to really be on top of your game. But you learn so much about so many different things and you can really be an expert in loads of different areas, particularly in areas that no one else is an expert in because no one’s doing this work in the same way. That could really set you up to do a whole lot of things.
WHAT ARE SOME OF THE GROUP ALUMNI DOING NOW?
One of Haw’s former Ph.D. students is doing structural biology at Scripps – and he has a Ph.D. in physical chemistry. Another recent student is working in New York on imaging brain slices and trying to work out how you topographically reconstruct the imaging of whole organisms. And he’s applying the instrumentation that he developed with Haw. Then there’s Kevin at Duke. He was a postdoc here. He’s carrying on a slightly different 3D tracking thing.
WHAT KIND OF SCIENTIST WOULD THRIVE IN THIS LAB?
You have to be committed to really trying out lots of different things and building lots of different things. You need to be able to think on your feet. I also think being inventive is very helpful. And I think being happy to collaborate and chat to your colleagues is also good, because subgroup is where we really get to see what all our colleagues are doing. And a willingness to be talkative is also very good.
WHAT ARE YOUR ASPIRATIONS AFTER YOUR POSTDOC?
I still aspire to be a professor. I would hope that some university would think I’ve done good work. Nothing in this life is certain, that’s my caveat. But that’s what I would like.