Why I do Science: John Coates

John Coates
Photo by Mei Mei

I was raised in Ireland by parents who valued education, but a learning disability made school a struggle for me. Supported by my parents and teachers, I eventually learned to read in fifth grade, and I especially enjoyed a series of children’s detective stories by Enid Blyton. The father character was a scientist who worked from his basement, and I naively imagined a life of experimenting all day with no reading or writing requirements! My dreams were reinforced by an eccentric but wonderful teacher who believed that science is a subject of demonstration rather than book learning. He often woke us up in morning classes with minor explosions, cool color reactions, or extreme odors. I was hooked.

I entered university in the inaugural class of Ireland’s first undergraduate program in biotechnology and focused my studies on process engineering. A brief stint in industry after graduation convinced me that my future lay elsewhere, and I subsequently completed a PhD in microbiology and anaerobic wastewater treatment before moving to the United States to pursue postdoctoral research in bioremediation and fossil fuel recovery. Here I was able to merge my disparate interests in engineering and microbiology into exciting,  interdisciplinary research projects.

My current research program seeks to balance society’s need to provide ecological protection while maintaining stable economic growth. I’m fortunate to be working during a revolutionary period in science in which we’ve seen technological advances in next-generation sequencing, computational analysis, and genome editing. Further, being part of a world-class campus is truly inspiring. Discussing my research with Nobel laureates and members of the National Academy of Sciences is always exhilarating. Even so, I still find the year’s first undergraduate class to be the most intimidating: Our deeply curious students constantly remind me how little we really know.

Microbiology professor John Coates investigates the removal of toxic materials and by-products from the environment. He is the recently appointed academic director of the Energy Bioscience Institute.