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.