PSD Spotlight: Josh Kurutz

January 3, 2024

Photo by Tommy Keith

The PSD January Spotlight is Josh Kurutz, NMR (Nuclear Magnetic Resonance) Facility Manager in the Chemistry Department. Josh first came to UChicago in 1998 as a Cardiology postdoc, pursuing biophysical studies with Atomic Force Microscopy. He then joined chemist Ka Yee Lee’s lab studying lung surfactant peptides by NMR. While there, Josh noticed an opening for Biomolecular NMR Facility Director and shifted his aims from becoming faculty to staff. “I reflected that I cared more about helping others with their projects than driving my own research,” says Josh. He moved on from that role in 2009 but came back to UChicago in 2019 to run the NMR Facility. We interviewed Josh about his interests and experiences.

People can come to me for …

support for research and education involving NMR. My facility is a 24/7 self-service resource for researchers ranging from first-year undergrads to PhD staff scientists—mostly from Chemistry and PME, with a few from BSD and outside UChicago. Mostly, people need training on running the instruments and analyzing their data, which I deliver at levels according to their needs. I often consult with researchers on how to solve scientific questions and sometimes collaborate with them on especially difficult problems.

What is nuclear magnetic resonance and what can researchers use it for?

The chemists and other scientists using my facility are typically asking a few key questions:

  • Did I make the molecule I tried to make?
  • How efficient was my chemical reaction?
  • How pure is my material?
  • How fast is my reaction going?
  • Are there any structural or configurational dynamics going on in my molecule(s)?

There are a vast number of other questions they can answer, but these are the most common.

NMR Facility in Searle

The technology: I like to describe NMR as “MRI for Molecules” because the hardware we use is conceptually very similar. In fact, with a small upgrade, we could perform microimaging if we desired. In NMR, instead of putting a person horizontally into an imaging magnet, we put chemical solutions in specialized test tubes vertically into large NMR magnets. But the data we get are not images, they’re spectra—plots of signal intensity vs. frequency akin to displays you might see on a stereo or in audio editing software showing you how much sound is coming through at different frequencies.

Detection of NMR signals is a lot like listening to the radio. When placed in large magnetic fields, different kinds of atomic nuclei resonate at different frequencies. To detect hydrogen (our most common nucleus for analysis) in our strongest magnet (14.1 Tesla), we tune our system to 600 MHz using basically the same technology you’d use to tune a radio to 91.5 MHz to listen to WBEZ. To “listen” to carbon or phosphorus, you’d tune to 125 MHz, or 202 MHz, respectively. Not all nuclei are observable in NMR, but the technique is essential for a large fraction of chemical science.

The chemically interesting part is in the fine structure of the spectra—like how we might tune in to 91.5 MHz for WBEZ, but we’re actually interested in listening to “Wait Wait, Don’t Tell Me,” which we hear at audio frequency (roughly 20 Hz to 20 kHz). NMR signals resonate with a chemically interesting range that also happens to be audio frequency—some older spectrometers even used to have speakers! The precise frequencies of each individual atom type inform us of the atoms’ specific chemical environments. For example, in a system where hydrogen atoms resonate at about 600 MHz, the hydrogens in a -CH3 (methyl) group, for instance, may have frequencies ~1500 Hz lower than the hydrogens in an -OH (alcohol) group. We can typically resolve resonances separated by ≤ 0.1 Hz, so NMR is extremely sensitive to subtle variations in the electronic environment within a molecule, making it very good for determining chemical structures. The areas under the peaks are quantitative, so if the sample has a mixture of compounds, we can determine their relative concentrations with precision. There are many other ways NMR can be used to determine molecular structure, but, well, time grows short.

What does a typical workday look like for you?

I’m not sure core facilities managers have single days that could be called “typical”—we wear too many hats. Our responsibilities include training, teaching, scientific methods development and implementation, communications, maintenance and repair, accounting, engineering, and even plumbing and carpentry if need be. Better to sample over a week or more.

Each day normally starts with routine daily checks of the instruments—making sure the overnight runs on the fully automatic instruments went OK, checking the logs of the others to see if researchers reported any problems, and generally looking around the Searle and GCIS labs for anything weird or out of place. Sometimes I need to help people resolve problems that come up when operating the instruments. I keep an eye out for recurring issues that might need a technical solution or revision to training procedures. In a typical week, I’ll hold 1–3 small-group training sessions, ranging from orientation to advanced manual operation. The Level1 training is most important, as it mostly focuses on safety and how to operate productively in a lab shared by 200–300 other people. (Modern spectrometers are very easy to operate, but getting high-quality data requires extra care and rigor, and ensuring this 24/7 operation full of chemical and physical hazards is safe and collegial requires addressing social rules and establishing cultural norms.)

A fun feature we have in the NMR labs is the “craft tables.” Researchers are required to use secondary containers to transport their samples, and I supply them with cheap plastic flasks. But the flasks are white, which makes them amenable to decoration, like canvases. So each NMR lab has a table with craft supplies: googly eyes, paint pens, stickers, bling, etc. People seem to like having this creative outlet, and it promotes safety. I’ve found it sometimes even helps with mental health, as students sometimes need a break from the bench and come to the NMR lab for a little crafting. A typical day thus includes a quick straightening up of craft supplies and checking whether anything is running low.

Even regular maintenance tasks here are a little exotic. For instance, last week I was filling three of our six superconducting magnets with liquid helium, the coldest material known (with qualifiers). Arguably this is the most essential part of my job—if it’s done incorrectly or late, millions of dollars of equipment could be destroyed, and research would be impeded. I often run regular performance maintenance to ensure the spectrometers consistently deliver high-quality data. I’ll also handle requests from researchers who need a particular method implemented or need specialized training in a particular technique. But there are always little odd bits of things that formal education never prepared me for: a little carpentry here, a little pneumatics plumbing there, occasionally some accounting and budgeting.

What do you enjoy about being part of the PSD community?

It’s a nice, collegial environment, and I enjoy meeting people from all over the Division. I especially like the PSD coffee hours, where staff and others can get together to network and learn more about what we all do. I’ve worked at a few different institutions now, and I’m really happy to be back at UChicago!

Tell us a bit about yourself.

I do a fair amount of volunteering, and I have a history of projects at the science/art interface.

For a bit more than a decade, I’ve volunteered with the Chicago Section of the American Chemical Society. I’m currently the section Historian, and I presented a couple of talks and posters at the 2021 national ACS meeting here in Chicago, primarily focused on social justice issues. For the last couple of years, I’ve been an elected Councilor for the Section, meaning I help represent Chicago at the national ACS Council, which is sort of a society legislative body. This year I’ve been advocating for national ACS meetings to be held in places where all members can feel safe to travel. Also this year, I started working with ACS’s Chemists With Disabilities Committee, partly to help make chemistry facilities more inclusive.

I also help produce an annual regional scientific meeting, the Chicago Area NMR Discussion Group. And you won’t see me in the lab on election days, as I usually serve as a poll worker. (Incidentally, I’ve learned a lot about how to train people on using technology from the Cook County Clerk’s staff, who train us poll workers on how to use and administer voting machines.)

I haven’t done much with art recently, but back when I was in BSD, my hobby of turning NMR signals of amino acids, nucleic acid bases, and other molecules into sounds got some attention in creative circles. WBEZ had a project asking for audio recordings of communities around Chicago, so I sent them a brief piece to represent the “molecular community.” A reporter came to the lab and made a segment to broadcast on-air, and its popularity led to a presence in a student-led “Science in Art” exhibit in GCIS. That exhibit was featured by Chicago Artists’ Month, and they named me one of their twelve featured artists. As part of that set of events, I gave a 6-minute “Pecha Kucha” presentation, in which I had to explain NMR and my creative project to a couple hundred people in the bar Martyr’s, which was wild. The organizers liked my “I Can Make Molecules Sing” presentation enough that they invited me back, so a few weeks later I was at Martyr’s again, giving a talk on atomic force microscopy called “I Can See Atoms With A Record Player.” [Listen to a molecule sing on the Clever Apes podcast. Josh’s segment begins at 5:30.]

Part of the Chicago Artists’ Month project involved creating visual art, so I developed a technique for re-creating 2D NMR spectra using pressed flowers on fine paper. For the creative non-scientist audience, I wanted to convey how much scientists find beauty in their data. By constructing objects that one could recognize first as being visually appealing, but then realize that they are actual scientific data, I aimed to help make the connection between data and beauty for the non-specialist. My current duties keep me really busy, but I hope to get back to this sort of thing soon.

My most recent but ill-fated creative project was a ballet about chemical elements. For this, I collaborated with Tiffany Lawson of Lawson Dance Theater, who approached the local ACS looking for someone who could help her choreograph a full-stage dance production about chemical elements. I worked with her to develop a ballet in two acts: organic and inorganic. Entitled “Elemental,” we had dances about phosphorus (energetic), iron (psychologically weighty), a duet between hydrogen and deuterium engaging in nuclear fusion resulting in helium, etc. I taught the dancers about protein structure and dynamics, and they got really creative with a “polymeric” dance that captured protein motion phenomenally as they performed entirely while holding hands. Sadly, the show never went public, as it had been scheduled to open at Stage 773 in April 2020, when everything locked down for COVID. After a few tries, both the performance space and the dance company went out of business.

What is the most interesting thing that you are working on right now?

We’re wrapping up a major upgrade to the facility, thanks to the VERY generous support of PSD, Chemistry, and PME. Every instrument got one sort of upgrade or another, and we added a new 600 MHz spectrometer. Making adjustments to all the new things took a lot of time and energy, but now we’re embarking on the next stage of improvements: implementing advanced methods and making them available to the UChicago community.

I see my role here as a facilitator for the adoption of best methods in analytical chemistry. There are plenty of people out there developing new NMR methods to make chemists’ jobs easier and more effective, but actually getting the bench researcher to try a new NMR method can be challenging. I like to shop for methods and practices that will benefit the researchers here, then implement them in a way they’ll find easy to pick up. My time working as a Community Manager in Agilent’s marketing department helped show me how this process of implementation, communication, and education needs to be carefully thought out to be effective. Now that we have a lot of new equipment and available methods, we can’t just say, “OK, folks, here you go!” and leave it at that. I’ll be doing a fair amount of technical homework to explore the new capabilities, probe them for trouble spots, develop easy-to-follow protocols, and then execute a communication plan to foster researcher adoption. It’s maybe 1/3 technical work and 2/3 communication with social framing.

What does diversity and inclusion mean to you?

Making sure everyone has an opportunity to conduct science. I particularly enjoy the international nature of my workplace, and I appreciate the progress toward equitable gender balance I’ve seen in science.

Recently I’ve focused on issues of accessibility for chemists with disabilities, especially those with mobility impairment. NMR facilities are notorious for being inaccessible, typically requiring people to climb stairs to load samples, making them climb under magnets to tune the instruments, and excluding people with magnetically sensitive assistive devices and sensors. But with the technology our facility now enjoys, we can accommodate more disabled people. Our modern magnets are well “shielded,” so they pose such a lower magnetic field risk than older models that almost everyone can operate our instruments safely. I made sure our major upgrade provided floor-accessible autosamplers and automatically tunable probes on every instrument so no one has to climb, crawl, or even stand to run NMR experiments. And we’ve found that non-disabled researchers are enjoying the improvements, too, much like how everyone benefits from curb cuts and auto-opening doors. I hope to work with PSD in the near future to ensure our facilities are as accessible as possible.

Do you have pets, and if so, what are their names?

Three cats (Minnie, Roger, and Butters), and a tortoise (Cap’n America). We have a few fish, and we tried naming some Klaatu, Barada, and Nikto (a reference to movies The Day the Earth Stood Still and Army of Darkness) but we can’t keep track of who’s who.         

What is your favorite restaurant in Chicago?

Whichever’s good and convenient before a Broadway in Chicago show. Italian Village is a reliable standby downtown, and Demera (Ethiopian) is good near the Metro.

What did you want to be when you grew up? Or, what do you want to do when you retire?

As a kid, I wanted to be a scientist. I gravitated toward physics and engineering-type things, but in college, I took a shine to chemistry and molecular biology. I’m pretty well aligned in my current job, where I get to do all kinds of different things.

It’s a little hard to envision retirement. I may volunteer as a docent at the Museum of Science and Industry, where I can show people fun things to do with the MSI’s electronic periodic table.

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