Why don’t sidewalks melt in the rain? For Dr. Bradley Dickson, a simple question launched a scientific career

He knows it might sound silly, but Dr. Bradley Dickson can thank a sidewalk for his career.

While walking to class on a rainy day as an undergrad, Dickson found himself pondering the pavement. How was it, he wondered, that the sidewalk wasn’t melting?

Dr. Bradley Dickson

“Have you ever made concrete? You go to the store, you buy powder, you mix it with water, you let it dry, right? Now it’s cement,” said Dickson, who was named staff scientist at Van Andel Research Institute in December. “But when it rains, it doesn’t go back into the mush. It stays cement.”

Dickson laughs at his seemingly simple observation. Yet this moment of curiosity led the young Dickson, then a student of horticulture, to enroll in a chemistry class on a whim. Dickson found his calling.

“Where all of my questions seem to end is ‘atoms,’” said Dickson. “So I have to go as far down as atoms, which is chemistry.”

Dickson’s work as VARI’s staff scientist is rooted in computational biophysics. His path there began on that fateful walk to class and continued with an impressive array of academic pursuits.

After receiving his Ph.D. in chemistry from Clemson University, Dickson began a postdoctoral circuit with stops at University of Texas at Austin, France’s École Normale Supérieure de Lyon, Purdue University, and University of North Carolina Chapel Hill.

Each of these stints proved formative for Dickson, even beyond his research. In Texas, a superior inspired him to “find problems everywhere.” In France, he worked with applied mathematicians — “the real mathematicians,” he says. “What I learned from those guys was to be careful. Math was invented because it’s precise, and our language isn’t.” That is to say, his work as a scientist could be all for naught without accuracy right down to the minutiae.

At Purdue and UNC, Dickson worked closely with researchers who were conducting experiments where his own work could be applied. That led him to VARI in 2015, at the invitation of former UNC colleague Dr. Scott Rothbart.

It was in VARI’s Rothbart Laboratory where Dickson focused on what has become the cornerstone of his work: software. Two kinds, specifically. One uses data input to predict the likely outcome of experiments. The other simulates molecular dynamics.

The software is useful for researchers who model complex molecular structures. It has also aided in drug discovery efforts in the Rothbart Laboratory, part of VARI’s Center for Epigenetics.

“If you know how two atoms interact, then you can put collections of atoms together and know how those collections interact,” Dickson said. “So now you can do simulations of molecules and biomolecules.”

Dickson has big plans for his role as staff scientist. Whereas his software now is mostly used in the Rothbart Laboratory, Dickson hopes to obtain grant funding to expand it to other labs at VARI and, eventually, to outside researchers.

Dickson’s ultimate aim, he says, is to “spend my time thinking about what is going to benefit what the people around me are doing.”