RACI National Congress Day 3

Day 3 of the RACI congress began with a marathon presentation from Scripps Institute’s Phil Baran. Other notables for the day included QUT’s Steve Bottle presenting “Radical new weapons in the battle against inflammation” (outlining the use of nitroxides as a potential new class of medicine) and University of Auckland’s Margaret Brimble who raced through the synthesis of Virgatolide B.

Phil Baran, Scripps Research Institute – “Studies in Natural Product Synthesis”

I must admit, it’s hard to know where to begin after watching Phil’s plenary presentation. It was truly a whirlwind tour of his last few year’s achievements beginning with the synthesis of Palau’amine then moving on to the development of commercial trifluoromethylation and difluoromethylation reagents. Next stop on the tour was the total synthesis of Ingenol (with the now well known Baran cyclase and oxidase cycles) and Phil rounded out the talk with the latest work on carbon-carbon bond forming reactions.

The most striking feature of the presentation was Baran’s “symbiosis” with commercial entities. Some are obvious, such as the collaboration with Leo Pharma for the production of Ingenol. Other research directions seem to have arisen from constant discussion with industry giants such as Merck and Sigma Aldrich. For example, Merck told Phil to avoid direct methylation of N-heterocycles as the reaction products would be too similar to the starting materials (and thus a nightmare to separate in a process plant).

I would say the Baran group is one of the best examples in the field Chemistry for industry connected research. This represents a very different model to what most of us are used to. The continued emphasis on “accountability and deliverables” is alien to many. The academic funding situation in Australia is rapidly deteriorating (especially for non-medical research) and his example is certainly one worth examining. Look out for an incoming Accounts of Chemical Research article on what Phil calls “Symbiosis” in organic chemistry.

Success in Research Panel, Phil Baran and Gregory Scholes

Props to the RACI for organising a student attended plenary panel for lunch times during the congress.

Both Greg and Phil made it clear that there is no recipe, no one path to success. When it comes to postdocs – they both outlined that they simply look for passionate scientists. It is not necessary to have done a PhD in a related field (although they occasionally look for someone with specific skills).

You advisor is “The most important decision of your life” – Phil Baran

The key, along with a good record, is a good recommendation. This means you should ensure you “don’t burn bridges with your advisor”. To me, this is clear. The contacts you make during your graduate years will serve you for the rest of your career. What better than an RACI congress to put yourself out there, get chatting and meet some great scientists!

The message today was clear and one I have heard echoed many times. Simply – a good record (papers), a good recommendation (network) and good communication (presentations and leadership).

Next time, the wonders of Fujita’s “crystal sponge” and comments from the second panel discussion.