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A Love of Structure Shapes a Life in Science



A Love of Structure Shapes a Life in Science

By Eric Sauter and Madeline McCurry-Schmidt

Hans Renata, the newest assistant professor on the Florida campus of The Scripps Research Institute (TSRI), comes by his love of structure naturally—both of his parents were civil engineers in his native Indonesia. Renata, who joined the faculty in July, explains his fascination this way:

“I do think about structures quite a bit,” he said. “That leads into my perspective of chemistry—creating something is innate to humans, and finding you can apply that creativity to chemistry is very captivating.”

Today, Renata is hard at work combining his love of structure, creativity and chemistry to develop new compounds to fight disease.

The Path to TSRI

Renata left Indonesia for Singapore at age 14 to attend the Anglo-Chinese School and, later, Raffles Institution, the oldest, and long-considered one of the best, private schools in that Southeast Asian city-state.

“It was definitely interesting for a 14-year-old at boarding school. You learn a lot about discipline because everything is regimented,” Renata said. “I liked the communal aspect of it. Having all different kinds of people living in the dorm makes it nice to learn about other people’s culture.”

It was in middle school at the Anglo-Chinese School that Renata took his innate love of structure and transferred it to science. Introduced to scientific subjects early on, he had a teacher who inspired him, breaking down the basic concepts of chemistry into simple terms and making the learning of those terms understandable and enjoyable. He decided almost immediately to become a chemist. This would not be the only time he came to a sudden conclusion, but it was the first.

After graduation, Renata applied to several schools in the United States (and one in England) and ended up choosing Columbia University in New York. “I wanted to come to the U.S. because of the sheer quality of higher education here,” he said. If you look at the world, the top ones are all here.” Columbia also had the distinct advantage of being in New York City, a place that he remembers fondly.

“It’s a great place to be for a college student,” Renata said. “It was a bit overwhelming at first. After you get the hang of it, you’re just having fun.”

It was at Columbia, right after hearing a lecture from TSRI Professor and Darlene Shiley Chair in Chemistry Phil Baran, that Renata made the second quickest decision in his life—approaching Baran after the lecture to say he was interested in doing graduate work at TSRI in once he left Columbia (which he did, summa cum laude). Baran encouraged him to apply.

“Phil’s lecture was mind blowing, and I decided right then and there to go to TSRI and work for him.”

Delving a Little Further Into Structure 

In La Jolla, California, Renata tried to develop innovative ways to synthesize natural products more effectively—basically, assembling something complex from simple organic building blocks that might then be applied to medicine and ultimately, to patients.

It was in Baran’s lab that Renata realized something else: Chemistry could also mean freedom of expression. He got the best kind of encouragement to explore that idea.

“Phil gave you the freedom to come up with your own research ideas,” Renata said.  “We’d always talk about the direction of the projects, and there were instances where I would come up with an independent idea of how to proceed forward. And never had he ever discouraged me from trying these ideas.”

After his work with Baran, Renata did his postdoctoral work at the California Institute of Technology. Then came the whole job application process, interviews and visits and hoping for the best. He was happy when he got an offer from TSRI—and the Florida campus.

“As an alumnus of the La Jolla campus, my experience there shaped me as a scientist,” he said. “So I feel obligated to pay back the institution and pay it forward to the next generation of students with mentorship and training.”

Scripps Florida’s emphasis on translational research also gives him the opportunity to collaborate with a range of scientists and test new compounds.

Renata’s goal is to find new ways to use biological tools to perform more effective chemistry. Because evolution has produced numerous naturally occurring enzymes, he wants to harness their potential to make the process of chemical synthesis more efficient—specifically in the process of discovering and developing naturally occurring antibiotics.

“Scripps Florida has great facilities and a very collegial atmosphere. If I have a question I can easily find senior colleagues who I can talk with about anything,” Renata explained. “I feel I’ve gotten a fast start to my career because they do so much here that I can focus on in my research. You get to do good science and they take care of the rest.”

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“Scripps Florida has great facilities and a very collegial atmosphere. If I have a question I can easily find senior colleagues who I can talk with about anything,” says Hans Renata, a TSRI alumnus and new faculty member.