Michael Schulz, assistant professor of chemistry, in a lab as a post-doc in Mainz, Germany

One roasted goat changed Michael Schulz’s career trajectory.

Like most freshmen – he was technically still a high school senior taking advantage of a University of Iowa program that jumpstarted precocious students in college – Schulz attended a welcome event. Some students might go to a pizza party, others might attend an ice cream social. This particular event was a goat roast (think pig pickin’ except with a goat), and it’s here he met a chemistry graduate student named Martin Mwangi.

"Martin convinced me to go into chemistry," said Schulz, now an assistant professor in the Department of Chemistry in the College of Science. "My original plan was to double major in philosophy and chemistry with the goal of going to medical school. Martin heard about the chemistry aspect and cornered me to tell me all about the interesting research he was doing."

Schulz said the research went over his head at the time, but he was interested enough and visited Mwangi’s lab. Schulz quickly fell in love with research and realized he didn’t have the right personality to be a medical doctor anyway.

From there, he shifted career goals and dove into the academic track. Schulz graduated in three years while researching site-isolating organometallic catalysts to facilitate cascade reactions. He then completed his Ph.D. in four years at the University of Florida working on aspects of acyclic diene metathesis (ADMET) polymerization and developing polymer delivery vehicles for internal radionuclide therapy. He completed post-doc work at the Max Planck Institute for Polymer Research in Mainz, Germany, and then the California Institute of Technology under Nobel laureate Robert Grubbs before arriving at Virginia Tech in August.

Although he’s not practicing medicine, Schulz still maintains that biomedical interest through his research. Natural science research is often bisected into basic science and applied science, but Schulz prefers to straddle the line between both areas.

As a chemist, he’s positioned to study universal questions and develop solutions for them.

"Physics is often very fundamental in looking at the atomistic level," Schulz said. "Biology is so complex that it’s challenging to account for every variable. Right in between, we have chemistry, a science that combines complexity and fundamental understanding.

"When we don’t have a solution to a problem, it reveals a lack of fundamental understanding of that challenge. I approach my chemistry research as, 'let’s use the challenges that we face as a society as clues to where the unanswered scientific questions lie.' Then we do the basic science to understand the system, and by so doing, create a solution to whatever problem we’re trying to solve."

His lab has several ongoing projects that tackle large biomedical problems including: developing a material to remove toxins produced by Clostridium difficile (C. diff.) from the intestine; synthesizing polymeric antiviral agents; and using polymer chemistry to improve the drug delivery in radiation therapy.

Group photo of Michael Schulz and his research group
Group photo of Michael Schulz (back left) and his research group at Virginia Tech.

As a chemist who heavily uses polymers in his work, Schulz said he was ecstatic to join Macromolecules Innovation Institute as a core faculty member when he received the offer to come to Blacksburg.

"Virginia Tech has one of the longest and most august histories in polymer chemistry," Schulz said. "Many big names in polymer chemistry have come through here, not just the professors but the people who’ve trained here too."

In addition to the potential collaborations with MII faculty, Schulz said he’s looking forward to utilizing the strong industry connections that MII and Virginia Tech have built.

"Academic-industrial interaction is extremely exciting," Schulz said. "When you generate that crosstalk, you can not only find the questions that need answering, you have a system to disseminate your discoveries."