June 29, 2023
Eric Dailing is a senior scientific engineering associate at the Molecular Foundry’s organic and macromolecular synthesis facility here at Berkeley Lab. He joined the Lab in February 2019, drawn to its academic environment and hands-on approach to science.
“I was interested in the national labs since I liked the intellectual freedom that came with working in academia,” Dailing said recently, in an interview from the home he shares with his partner of 10 years, Simon. “I like being able to do lots of hands-on work on the fundamental side, but also have opportunities to do translational or applied work.”
Dailing grew up in Michigan, about 20 minutes south of Detroit. He spent most of his youth and early academic years nearby, getting an undergraduate degree from Case Western Reserve University, in Ohio, and later working for a medical device company in Pittsburgh before enrolling at the University of Colorado where he earned a doctorate in chemical engineering. He did his postdoctoral research at Vanderbilt University.
He found the Foundry’s user facility environment intriguing in terms of the diversity and the type of work that’s done there. “It's always exciting – always something new happening.”
Eric sat down to answer some questions for Elements.
Tell us about the work you do at the Lab.
My position at the Foundry is primarily supporting the user program: training, onboarding, instrument and laboratory management. Users will submit proposals to use our facilities and they'll access instrumentation and staff expertise at no charge.
We have developed instrumentation clusters and workflows to offer things that they can't do at their home institutions. So, we do have a lot of academic users, since we're doing bleeding-edge fundamental research in a lot of cases. But we also have startups and small companies that don't have the capital to buy expensive instrumentation, and will use our facilities to support their R&D efforts and scale up. We have some long-time industry users who have been at the Foundry for many years.
What are you focusing a lot of your attention at work on lately?
I’ve been working closely with Brett Helms, one of our staff scientists, on programmatic research on recyclable polymers. A lot of my background and training in chemical engineering was on polymer science. It’s interesting because it’s kind of a unique sort of chemistry: We're taking small molecules and linking them together into big chains of molecules that repeat over and over.
I like to do hands-on research, and over the last few years I’ve been involved in chemical synthesis and characterization for materials like plastics and rubbers; essentially coming up with new types of chemistry to make them easier to recycle. From an environmental health standpoint, it's really critical work. We have a plastics crisis happening right now where they never degrade, they stay in landfills forever or end up scattered throughout the environment with really no way to sequester them.
The parameter space for this sort of design is nearly infinite, and really intellectually appealing to me. It requires a lot of collaboration; a lot of interdisciplinary science. It's a good representation of the type of work that we can accomplish at the Foundry and elsewhere at the Lab.
What do you like to do outside of working at the Lab?
During graduate school in Colorado, I fell in love with skiing.
We go up to Tahoe mostly; Kirkwood and sometimes Heavenly, or we'll do a few trips around the Mountain West region. Since we’ve moved out here, we’ve done Jackson Hole and Big Sky, and a couple of mountains in Colorado.
And I enjoy gardening. I tended a small garden in the backyard of my parent’s Michigan home but here we can grow things year-round, like citrus and other fruits, and succulents. The micro-climates out here are pretty fascinating. It's interesting to see how some things grow well in some areas of the Bay and not others.
If you were able to meet your 18-year-old self today, what advice would you give him?
I would say, “It will be okay.” I was pretty high strung, like super focused, “I'm doing the right thing? Am I sure I’m not making mistakes?” So, I would probably tell myself that it's okay to mess up, that it's okay to take risks even if the path forward isn't clear. The world's a big, complicated place and it's okay to take it slow and figure things out as you go.
Also, I would say, buy some stock in Apple.