Michael Serpe

Top 40 Under 40 2013

Photography Curtis Trent

Age: 36

Job Title: Assistant Professor, University of Alberta

Why He’s Top 40: His research in the field of responsive polymers has the potential to improve lives around the world. And he inspires others to look at the world with the same amount of curiosity and innovation.

What Do You Like Most About Edmonton?: “Believe it or not, I love the weather. I grew up in Florida. When I could, I moved up to Georgia Tech for graduate studies, but it’s still very hot. Then, I moved to North Carolina; it was still too hot. I came to Edmonton during minus 40 degree weather. It was perfect.”

Probably the most important thing that students learn in Michael Serpe’s chemistry class is the importance of curiosity and asking questions. Just because a lab project doesn’t result in an expected outcome doesn’t mean it is a failure. It might just mean they should look closer.

In 2009, a post-doctorate student was upset when her experiment didn’t turn out as predicted but, when Serpe checked it out, he got excited. The mysterious change in the colour of the student’s experiment led to the creation of a device that could potentially save lives. The device uses responsive polymers – long strands of molecules that can act like sponges, soaking up contaminants – to change colour in the presence of dangerous toxins in water, soil or even the human body.

“I try to teach my students this kind of mentality. So many times they come in and say ‘Well, this wouldn’t work,’ so they want to just move on. So, I try to get them to understand what actually happened,” he says.

Serpe and a group of students are working closely with TEC Edmonton to get a patent for the device, which currently can detect lead, cadmium, silver and naphthenic acids in water. Imperial Oil, Petro-Canada and the Centre for Oil Sands Innovations gave funding for the project with hopes the technology will detect and remove contaminants in the oil fields. And Serpe is the recipient of the Grand Challenges Canada Rising Stars in Global Health grant and the Petro-Canada Young Innovator award, which helped finance his innovative research.

His team is also looking at ways to use the polymers to create diagnostic devices that detect proteins that are indicators of disease. Serpe’s hoping the devices will save lives in the developing world, where misdiagnoses and overuse of medication are daily occurrences. And his research looks at how the devices could potentially be implanted into a cancer patient and release drugs to kill just the tumor and nothing else. The topic of polymers is so extensive that Serpe and Georgia Institute of Technology professor, Andrew Lyon, edited a book about the possible applications of the technology.

For the assistant professor, the thrill of a discovery isn’t an end to itself; he wants to see his work make an impact. The most recent discovery in one of Serpe’s labs involved a student inadvertently creating a polymer-based muscle. “They can actually lift weights … like Arnold Schwarzenegger,” says Serpe. In the case of the muscles, he sees the potential for them being used in robotics. And he would love to see the contamination device improve the quality of lives around the world. “People can stop dying with just a little bit of progress,” he says. “That’s extremely exciting to me.”

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