RACI National Congress Day 5 and Wrap-up

Sadly the RACI congress has now come to a close. This was my first large scale, multidisciplinary conference and it has been an excellent experience. Top notch presentations, great atmosphere, very accessible speakers, nice location and excellent variety (both in the science and the chocolate bar each day in the lunch pack). Hope you have all enjoyed following along here, please let me know what you thought of the posts (email, twitter, comment) as I’m still a pretty new blogger!

Daniel Nocera, Harvard University – “The Artificial Leaf”

Taking inspiration from nature is a well-weathered technique in organic chemistry and what better process to apply that to than photosynthesis. While there are many groups around the world working on the photocatalytic splitting of water, Nocera takes this concept to the next level. The process is performed in a solar cell with a self-healing bio-inspired electrode. This should mean longer lifetimes and more reliable energy production.


Hydrogen bubbles from Nocera’s “Artificial Leaf”

The best prototype so far is up around 15% efficiency, which according to Nocera beats out even higher order plants (topping out at about 6%). There is still work to be done in making “The Artificial Leaf” commercially viable but progress is being made and the concept is truly alluring.

Congress wrap-up

To follow on from Renée Webster’s example, here is a quick summary of my likes/dislikes of the 2014 RACI National Congress:

The Good

  • Plenary speakers were exceptional, good variety and mix of applied/blue sky research
  • Talks mostly kept on time
  • Lunch bags (grab, go and eat on the river or attend the lunchtime panels)
  • Lots of coffee machines
  • Plenary discussion panels – big props for this
  • Well organised student trivia night (we came second!)
  • Collegial atmosphere between students, academics and plenaries alike
  • Excellent conference app (updated daily, searchable, ability to make own schedule)
  • Proximity to good bars and pubs!

The Bad

  • Lack of social media promotion during congress (Only two tweets from @RACI_HQ during the entire week), suggest a curator for the next congress
  • No funding for student events
  • No poster or presentation prizes
  • Bar tab at the poster session (ran out in 15-30 mins), drinks tickets far preferable!
  • Some gaps / short sessions (not apparent in the org. chem sessions though…)
  • Frequent clashes between med chem and org. synthesis (hard to please everyone though)
  • Terrible wifi and internet connectivity
  • Lack of abstracts on the conference app (later realised you could download a pdf of abstracts but could have been clarified in opening remarks)

Gripes aside, the organisation of such an event must have been a massive undertaking. Credit to Joe Shapter and others for a successful meeting. Thanks to those who read all of these updates.

Hope to see you all again at the 2017 Centennial Anniversary Celebration Congress in Melbourne!

RACI National Congress Day 4

Welcome back to our ongoing coverage of the 2014 RACI National Congress. So far the week has been characterised by exemplary plenaries each morning and Day 4 was no exception. To top it off, the student attendees were once again treated with a panel discussion by some plenary speakers. I also want to give a shout-out to fellow blogger/tweeter Renée Webster who gave an excellent presentation on her fuel oxidation research.

Makoto Fujita, The University of Tokyo – “Crystalline sponge method : X-Ray structure analysis without crystallization”

Imagine this – you have an unknown compound (< 1 mg), NMR is inconclusive, so is the mass spec data. Fujita presents a future where as little as 5 nanograms could be used to unequivocally determine it’s structure. Forget painstakingly growing a crystal – just soak it into Fujita’s crystal-sponge and wait. It can take approximately 2-7 days for the networked structure to equilibrate and accomodate the guest in an ordered fashion. When I asked Fujita whether he had considered commercialisation of his “crystal-sponge”, this was the response:

“You know the Apple iPhone? They first released the iPhone 3. Our crystal is the iPhone zero.” – Makoto Fujita

So, clearly there is still a lot of work to be done in generalising this method. Derek Lowe commented this week that in his experience the network is completely incompatible with basic amines or heterocycles. Fujita says that occupancy within the crystal of 40-70% gives a “semi-empirical structural solution” and >70% gives data comparable with conventional X-ray. The response to Fujita’s paper in Nature last year has been huge and it appears a number of groups are working on validating/improving the technique. Perhaps one day the “crystal-sponge” will be something every lab couldn’t do without.

Success in Research Panel – David Leigh, Alan Aspuru-Guzik, Hubert Girault, Katharina Landfester

Most of the questions in the second plenary discussion panel on thursday appeared to be geared towards how to best put ourselves forward in a resume/CV. The academics outlined what they look for in a candidate – creativity, enthusiasm and leadership. The cover letter is crucial and should be genuinely personal (it cannot be a carbon-copy for all applications). Where possible, meeting an academic in person (eg. at a conferences) is ideal. A face to face meeting can go a long way in building a relationship.

Aspuru-Guzik said he looks for what he calls “triangulation”, a bachelor at one university, a PhD at a different one and a post-doc at yet another. Each preferably with different research focuses. Commenting on research record, it was suggested that you should avoid publishing multiple papers with similar titles. You should show breadth and creativity where possible. Don’t drip feed your research by publishing many small papers as apparently “1 JACS is worth 5 Chem Comm’s”. Ouch.

In the end, the picture is similar to yesterday. A good record, a good recommendation, a good cover letter, leadership skills and creative personality. In the words of David Leigh, “Don’t be afraid to be incredibly ambitious”.

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.

RACI National Congress Day 2

Hi guys! Welcome back to day 2 of my RACI congress summary. Once again here is a simple outline of my top 3 talks of the day:

1. David Leigh, The University of Manchester – “Making the tiniest machines”

Out walks David Leigh with coloured cloth in hand, he paces back and forth across the stage. After a short introduction, he opens his hand and the cloth is gone. For those that don’t know, David Leigh is clearly quite the magician – both on stage and in the lab. Leigh described one of the first examples of a “molecular machine” to produce a peptide/protein molecule. Using a supramolecular catenane strategy, a series of amino acids were coupled together using chemical ligation. It will be very interesting to see how this can be applied to large proteins/peptides as opposed to more simplistic models.

2. James Crawford, Genentech – “Potent and selective pyridone BTK inhibitors with activity against mutant forms of BTK”

Building on the work of Roche, Crawford outlined the latest by Genentech for their work toward a BTK inhibitor. Some small molecule structures were described for the first time. A BTK inhibitor was developed using X-Ray crystallographic methods in combination with computational models and what Crawford describes as “Matched Pair Analysis”. This modern technique involves looking at a single property in a series of molecules in which a single functional group is changed/modified. Monitoring the trend of these properties across the series can then drive the med-chem direction of the project. Strikingly, kinase activity/selectivity was constantly monitored throughout the project.

3. Shane Wilkinson, Sydney University – “Synthetic Cannabinoids : from “drug design” to “designer drugs””

The huge explosion of designer drugs has lead to the rapid implementation of “hit to market” drugs – in direct contrast with the “hit to lead” theme in which Wilkinson found himself. An awesome talk on a vast series of street drugs currently being dispersed into the public domain via questionable characters in the illicit drug scene. Shane has synthesised a huge number of these compounds and tested their affinity for the “promiscuous” cannabinoid receptor. The most striking message of the talk was the ability of illicit manufacturers to use academic and patent literature as inspiration for their own organic syntheses. Shane even outlined a few cases where molecules seen were clearly a combination of two “chunks” of literature molecules. In other words, a “molecular hybridisation” of literature compounds.

Tune in next time for a “Baran” spectacular and/or outline from the excellent panel discussion on success in academic careers.

RACI National Congress Day 1

Sunny Adelaide! For those following along on twitter (#RACI14) you may have noticed that the Australian chemical community are meeting once again. The Royal Australian Chemical Institute’s National Congress for 2014 is well and truly underway and I thought I’d give a quick summary of my first day’s highlights. So far this has been an awesome opportunity to meet with chemists from a diverse background – young and ‘old’ alike. Anyway, without further ado, my top 3 from day 1:

1. Prof. Peter Schreiner, Justus-Liebig University – “Tunneling control of chemical reactions”

First, a quote:

“I never thought I’d be published in JACS for a paper on benzoic acid”

Schreiner presents an elegant look at tunneling, which in this context refers to a reaction under kinetic control that is simply too fast than would be expected by energetics. In other words, the energy barrier is high enough that it is insurmountable, yet the reaction/transformation still occurs. Experimental setup apparently involves passing molecules through tubing at 1000ºC and subsequently cooling them down to 11K over a distance of one inch.

Shadi Amiri, Hans Peter Reisenauer, and Peter R. Schreiner J. Am. Chem. Soc. 2010, 132, 15902–15904.

2. Stacie Canan, Celgene – “Discovery of anti-malarial compounds with a unique mechanism of action”

An excellent plenary introduction to the RACI congress by Stacie Canan. Clearly a huge issue as 20% of child deaths today are caused by malaria. Celgene has utilised a phenotypic drug discovery approach looking for new anti-malarials. Interesting stat for neglected diseases: 1% of New Chemical Entities are for neglected diseases while they are responsible for 10% of the global disease burden. Classic big pharma issue there – nice to see some good progress being made.

3. Chris Vanderwal, University of California, Irvine – “Synthesis of complex, bioactive natural products”

Some fairly impressive work presented by Chris on the stereoselective synthesis of polychlorinated lipids. I can certainly appreciate how building up chlorinated alkanes in a stereoselective way is easier said than done…

Tune in next time for day 2 highlights!