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A molecular exchange with Yudin

U of T chemistry professor Andrei Yudin is at the forefront of chemical innovation
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Whether it’s in making molecules or starting companies, professor Andrei Yudin always strives for excellence — and it shows. He is the co-author of over 80 publications and patents, the founder of two companies (Ylektra and Encycle Therapeutics), and the recipient of numerous prestigious awards, such as the 2010 Rutherford Medal of the Royal Society of Canada. With these kinds of credentials, he is more than at home in the cutting-edge research environment of U of T’s chemistry department, where he is surrounded by similarly ambitious and successful faculty members. His lab is on the third floor of the newly-renovated Davenport Building, and a brief stroll inside reveals beakers, bottles, and flasks of all shapes and sizes harbouring various liquids and powders  — an eclectic mix of high-tech instruments with glassware that seems straight out of a medieval alchemist’s workshop. The chalkboards are brimming with chemical structures.

Professor Yudin’s research lies at the interface of organic and biological chemistry. Many of his graduate students work on projects in the area of organic synthesis, which is all about finding imaginative and efficient ways of constructing molecules with the right connections between atoms. In 2006, his group published a paper in the Journal of the American Chemical Societydescribing a new class of molecules, called aziridine aldehydes, that are capable of forming cyclic peptides by tying together the ends of linear amino acid chains. It is primarily this work which has allowed Dr. Yudin to extend his research interests into the realm of biology. Dr. Yudin feels that embracing this sort of inter-disciplinary approach is crucial in today’s research world.

“When I was a graduate student, I lived in the time of secure jobs, clear future, and emphasis on being an expert in one field because that was the way to secure a job in industry… Being an expert in what you do currently is not going to be enough in order to succeed.” 

“I think that exciting things are to be found almost exclusively at the intersection of fields and I think that anything significant in the future will be produced by teams of people,” says Dr. Yudin. “These teams will be composed of scientists with very different backgrounds. I … urge the students to learn to speak and communicate the language of other disciplines… When I was a graduate student, I lived in the time of secure jobs, clear future, and emphasis on being an expert in one field because that was the way to secure a job in industry… Being an expert in what you do currently is not going to be enough in order to succeed.”

About a week ago, Dr. Yudin partnered with MaRS Innovation to create a spin-off company, Encycle Therapeutics, to further develop his technology for generating cyclic peptide libraries, a potential new hotbed for the development of pharmaceutical drugs.

When asked about the future of pharmaceutical companies, Dr. Yudin replied, “The times of mammoths such as Merck and Pfizer, who used to hire many of our students, are gone. For instance, Merck-Frost recently closed its research and development facility in Montreal. In my view, small and flexible companies who are aggressively pursuing discovery, are going to take center stage. This also means that the students must embrace these emerging opportunities and take advantage of them. I can see a lot more companies created around technologies that emerge from research universities.”

Dr. Yudin was not always set on a career as a chemist. As a boy he loved drawing and painting, a passion that remains with him to this day; he attends weekly life drawing sessions at the Toronto School of Arts and at the Arts Gallery of Ontario, and he claims that when and if he retires, he will paint and draw full-time.

“When I got exposed to organic chemistry, I realized that my drawing skills were really helping me in class. I was completely ‘sold’ when I found out that it was possible to represent chemical properties by using neatly drawn abstractions such as chemical structures,” he said in a recent interview with Nature Chemistry.

Dr. Yudin’s path through the world of academic research began with the completion of a BSc degree at Moscow State University, followed by a PhD degree at the University of Southern California. Dr. Yudin then went on to complete postdoctoral studies at the world-renowned Scripps Research Institute in the lab of professor K. Barry Sharpless, a scientist Dr. Yudin respects very greatly.

“Barry Sharpless [was my biggest role model] due to his ability to profoundly affect science as a whole as opposed to a narrow sub-discipline,” says Dr. Yudin. “He does this with simple but far-reaching ideas.”

Most U of T’s life science or chemistry students might know Dr. Yudin as their professor for CHM138, the first-year organic chemistry course; however, he also teaches a number of other undergrad and graduate level courses in the chemistry department. Over his years of teaching, Dr. Yudin has realized that one of the most important skills as a lecturer is to be able to speak slowly and with eye contact. When asked how he made organic chemistry engaging for first-year undergraduates, Dr. Yudin replied, “One must be able to relate to everyday life. It is important to remember that many of the students will not choose chemistry as their future vocation.”

Dr. Yudin finds that one of the most challenging things about his job is to “find the right balance between administrative work, family, and science.” However, “discussing science with [his] students and seeing them succeed” is always a major source of excitement for him.

When asked to give advice to prospective grad students, Dr. Yudin said, “Don’t waste time. This is the best period of your lives; you likely do not have a lot of responsibilities outside research. I would advise students to always ask this question: ‘Am I, at this point, doing the most important thing I could be doing?’ If the answer is ‘no,’ switch to the most important task at hand, however difficult or at times boring it might be… Enjoy the moment!”