Growing up in California’s pre-technology-boom Silicon Valley, Brent Iverson was surrounded by science and intelligent peers.
“We didn’t realize that our mothers and fathers were creating what we now know as the computer industry,” Iverson says. “I was surrounded by really smart kids. Out of a 6th grade class of 30, seven of us went to Stanford. I thought science was just part of life since I was surrounded by it. I didn‘t think I was particularly good at it, though.”
Despite high school aspirations to become a professional golfer, Iverson attended Stanford and discovered his affinity for chemistry. The summer after his freshman year he worked in a laboratory with a graduate student named Jonathan Sessler, who is now one of his UT chemistry colleagues.
“We took very different paths but ended up at the same university in the same department in offices right down the hall from each other,” Iverson says. “It’s been a lifelong friendship.” In working with Sessler, Iverson discovered that science is “a creative and exciting place” - something he hadn‘t yet realized from his classes alone.
After Stanford, Iverson attended the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, which was the “place to be” for chemistry in the 1980’s.
“I was surrounded by absolutely phenomenal people at Caltech, both faculty and students who’ve gone on to be incredibly successful,” he says. One of his Caltech classmates was his future wife and another was Eric Anslyn, now also a UT chemistry professor.
At Caltech, Iverson worked for a young Peter Dervan, a largely unknown chemist at the time, but one who would enjoy a meteoric rise in fame and accomplishments including admission to the National Academy of Sciences by age 40.
“I wanted to work with Dervan because back then it was largely unanticipated that organic chemists would work with biological molecules,” Iverson says. “Dervan was working with DNA - a far cry from what we now think of as molecular biology, but it was still a substantial leap from what people considered organic chemistry to be at that time. We were taking an organic chemistry perspective and looking at complicated biological molecules such as DNA before this kind of work had been validated by awards.”
Iverson has been involved in this type of research ever since, as evidenced by the recent anthrax antitoxin research he has conducted with UT chemical engineering professor George Georgiou. The antitoxin works even without antibiotics, and protects laboratory animals before and after anthrax spore exposure, making it useful as a prophylactic and as a cure.
Though research is Iverson’s favorite aspect of his scientific career, teaching is a close second.
“Teaching a course is an incredible journey each time through. The students start pretty much from scratch, then follow a path of learning that leads them to understanding a great deal about the molecular world. It is thrill to help students come to understand things they thought they couldn’t such as how pharmaceuticals are synthesized and how they work. Chemistry students learn a whole new vocabulary – a foreign language that can be used to decipher some of the most amazing secrets in the universe,” he says.
Iverson has coauthored textbooks as “a creative outlet to what I’ve picked up as a teacher.” Though the writing process can be slow and detail oriented, Iverson finds it to be a great opportunity to use what he’s learned as a professor and apply it to students he’ll never meet.
Referring to his profession as “ one of the last great jobs in America” its clear Iverson is passionate about his work. And passion is the key for anyone hoping to follow in his successful path. He advises potential protégés to “work on science you’re excited about.” The creative aspect of making something new is what keeps Iverson fascinated by chemistry.
“Molecules are the world’s greatest tinker toy set, and if you make something important it could help thousands of people” he says.