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Meet the surface chemist supporting the molecular electronics revolution

Brandon Wenning of Roswell Biotechnologies shares his dual passion for chemistry and music

By: Nina Notman

Brandon Wenning
Brandon Wenning
Credit: Zsolt Majzik

In April 2020, Brandon Wenning drove from Massachusetts to California. “I got to see the country at a really weird time,” he explains. “I had all these nice plans of seeing national parks and exploring some cool cities but, due to COVID-19, I ended up driving it as quickly and as directly as I could.” 

Wenning was relocating to start a new role at Roswell Biotechnologies, a life-sciences start-up that is developing molecular electronic chips to read and sequence DNA. The firm’s goal is to sequence human genomes for $100. “This will enable personalized precision medicine based on unique genetic factors,” Wenning explains. Other potential applications for this technology include infectious disease diagnostics and devices that store data in the form of DNA. It is also being developed as an environmental monitoring tool to rapidly analyze swabs from surfaces in hotel rooms and other spaces to certify there's no trace of a specific bacteria or virus, explains Wenning. “We have a pretty big project going on around coronavirus.”

As the surface chemist on the team, Wenning studies the interface between the chips and the biomolecules, such as DNA, that they are designed to sense. “I am currently looking at new surface chemistries to increase signal quality and improve reliability of our devices in the field,” he says. 

Prior to joining Roswell Biotechnologies, Wenning worked as a formulations chemist at DuPont’s Marlborough site. “I was developing photoresists for next generation lithography applications,” he explains. “We were looking to print the absolute smallest feature that we could on a chip, as small as 15nm, on circuit boards, logic devices, and memory devices.” 

Before starting at DuPont, Wenning completed a PhD at Cornell University with Christopher Ober. “I was working on marine antifouling coatings,” he says, specifically “designing polymer coatings to control the way algae and barnacles settle on surfaces.” 

Outside of the lab, Wenning is a passionate musician. His primary instrument is flute, but he also plays clarinet and saxophone. “I perform professionally in pit orchestras for musicals, symphony orchestras, big bands, and chamber ensembles,” he explains. There is a lot of overlap between the discipline and determination needed to play music and to do scientific research, he adds.

What is in your lab coat pocket?

A good pair of tweezers and a fine tip Sharpie.

What is the most exciting project that you worked on?

What I'm working on right now; the ability to do fast, efficient gene sequencing has such an opportunity to improve medicine and disease detection. 

What was the last experiment you ran?

I was doing a series of test functionalizations on electrodes. I was putting organic surfaces down on electrodes and measuring how strongly they adhered. 

What laboratory tool can't live without?

A good Schlenk line.

Who is your scientific hero?

Alexander Borodin. Like me, he was both a chemist and a musician. He has an organic chemistry reaction named after him and also composed some of the most famous symphonies in classical repertoire.

What's your favorite polymer?

PDMS (polydimethylsiloxane). It's got so many really cool applications and it behaves in such a super weird way. It doesn't act like a normal polymer or organic material.

Tell me about the best piece of professional advice you've received.

The best way to grow your career is to be somewhere that's growing.

What's your morning routine?

To get up at the very last possible minute and still head out the door on time.

Do you like to listen to music in the lab?

Unsurprising, I do like to listen to music in the lab. It's a really big range; I listen to a lot of classical. But I also like hard rock and some contemporary pop music. 

The opinions expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect the view of their employer or the American Chemical Society.

Copyright 2020 American Chemical Society (All Rights Reserved)

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