Marchese attributed his ability to overcome challenges during his doctoral studies to his passion for his research. PHOTO COURTESY OF DAN HAVES/UNIVERSITY OF TORONTO CHEMISTRY DEPARTMENT

Austin Marchese, a U of T Organic Chemistry PhD student supervised by Professor Mark Lautens, has been named a Vanier Scholar — one of Canada’s most prestigious awards for students in doctoral studies.

Marchese was awarded the scholarship for his research proposal “Novel Enantioselective Nickel-Catalyzed Transformations Forming Medicinally and Industrially Relevant Halogenated Compounds.”

The proposal details his findings that affordable nickel-based catalysts — which can speed up the rate of a chemical reaction without being consumed — could be used in an innovative way to produce compounds important in medicine and industry.  

The impact of Marchese’s research

Writing to The Varsity, Marchese explained that the first part of his research proposal explored a “unique phenomenon” that he and his colleague observed in the course of their research.

“We discovered a rare and intriguing method to generate our compounds with moderate enantioselectivities,” he wrote. An enantioselectivity is a tendency for a reaction to produce one particular variant of a product, in greater quantities than another.

“We would like to understand why exactly we see this phenomenon and how we can exploit it and improve upon it,” he added. “A breakthrough in this would yield a useful and interesting synthetic technique to generate these divergent medicinally relevant compounds with high enantioselectivities.”

The second part of the proposal is to develop improved methods to form bonds between carbon and fluorine. “This methodology would be of interest to pharmaceutical researchers,” noted Marchese, “as carbon-fluorine bonds are ubiquitous in biologically active compounds, but there is a severe lack of synthetic methodologies available to install these bonds in a mild and selective manner.”

“In an ideal world, both parts of my proposal would come together; a nickel catalyzed process of this nature to enantioselectivity generate medicinally relevant compounds while installing an invaluable carbon-fluorine bond, but we are quite far away from achieving this.”

The positive attitude of an organic chemist

Marchese attributed his ability to overcome challenges during his doctoral studies to his passion for his research.

“I believe if you genuinely enjoy what you do and have confidence in yourself,” wrote Marchese, “everything will turn out alright.”

“Many people in my field do very long days, but if you enjoy it does not feel like work. It is similar to the lessons I learned competing Varsity track and field in undergrad; you put in a lot of work so those short instances of success become more rewarding, and that propagates you to work harder after.”

“Expectations do go up in grad school, and you have less time to study and work between deadlines, so I just try to stay calm and trust that if I give it my best and put in as much effort as I can, everything will work out.”

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