Sustainable synthesis of chiral molecules

An interview with Dr. Ana García Herraiz of EPFL

Dr. Ana García Herraiz is a postdoctoral researcher in Professor Nicolai Cramer’s group at the École polytechnique fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL). She was one of the 2019 finalists of the Reaxys PhD Prize, receiving the accolade for her work with Professor Suero at the ICIQ. She also has experience as a corporate research scientist, having worked at Eli Lilly between her master’s degree and PhD. She met with us to discuss her research, her experiences during the COVID-19 pandemic, and her thoughts on how to encourage more women to pursue careers in science.

Dr. Ana García Herraiz portrait

Could you tell us a little about the research you carried out with the Suero group at ICIQ?

We unleashed the synthetic potential of carbynes, which are an underappreciated class of carbon reactive species.

The key to our work was the design of stable carbyne sources decorated with two orthogonal groups: a hypervalent iodine moiety; and a diazo functionality that undergoes photocatalytic single-electron reduction to generate an electrophilic diazomethyl radical. The ability of the latter species to induce site-selective carbon–hydrogen bond cleavage in aromatic rings enabled a useful diazomethylation reaction, which underpins sequencing control for the late-stage assembly-point functionalization of medically relevant agents.

Our strategy provided an efficient route to generate libraries of potentially bioactive molecules through the installation of tailored chiral centers at carbon–hydrogen bonds.

You were a Reaxys PhD Prize finalist in 2019 for that research. What was it like to gain international recognition at such an early stage in your career?

The 2019 finalists of the Reaxys PhD Prize in Amsterdam.
Above: The 2019 finalists of the Reaxys PhD Prize in Amsterdam.

It was very important for me to be selected as a Reaxys PhD Prize finalist. I remember the moment when I received the email notification perfectly. I could not believe it! I rushed to my supervisor’s office to share the great news with him.

Recognition can serve as a reminder that taking a risk in cutting-edge science is worth it. I also think such recognition continues to have an impact throughout one’s career. Being named one of the Reaxys PhD Prize finalists boosted my self-confidence, which helped with my decision to apply for a postdoctoral position.

You’re referring to your position with the Cramer group at EPFL, which you started in December 2019.

That’s correct. My research in Professor Cramer’s group focuses on the development of new, highly enantioselective C-H functionalization to generate molecular complexity from readily available feedstock molecules.

We aim to open new opportunities for the sustainable synthesis of chiral molecules by employing a catalyst system based on cobalt, thus avoiding the use of precious metals. The stereocontrol of the transformation is governed by a chiral cyclopentadienyl ligand (CpX) that was previously developed in our group and applied in a vast number of valuable transformations.

We aim to open new opportunities for the sustainable synthesis of chiral molecules by employing a catalyst system based on cobalt, thus avoiding the use of precious metals.

—Dr. Ana García Herraiz

Briefly going back to the Reaxys PhD Prize: what was your experience of the Symposium?

Attending the Reaxys PhD Prize Symposium in Amsterdam was an amazing experience. It was a great opportunity to meet PhD students from different backgrounds and to discuss our projects during the poster presentations. I also enjoyed the relaxed atmosphere of the event, which allowed us time to talk about our future careers and concerns, and to learn from each other’s experiences.

The Reaxys PhD Prize Symposium 2019 in Amsterdam.
Above: The Reaxys PhD Prize Symposium 2019 in Amsterdam.

Ana Garcia Herraiz

It was very inspiring to see all those presentation from outstanding chemists. I particularly remember Dr. Yujia Qing, who was one of the winners, talking about her molecular hopper. I also found Dr. Robert Tromans’ talk on a receptor for glucose very interesting.

And of course, now it’s interesting to remember Dr. Mike Geeson’s talk. He was another 2019 winner. He had to give his talk via online communication. Back then, we could not imagine that would become the new way of sharing science.

Has the pandemic affected your ability to carry out research?

As an organic chemist, I spend most of my time in the lab, so during the lockdown, which lasted around 6 weeks here, I was not able to carry out research as usual. Luckily, I had the chance to write a review on my current topic, chiral cyclopentadienyl ligands. That resulted in a publication in the journal Angewandte Chemie.

Currently, the situation in our laboratories is normal, with only a few exceptions. We have to work remotely whenever we can and we have to plan our experiments further in advance, since reagent delivery might take longer than usual.

The outbreak of COVID-19 also forced us to cancel work-related travel. Therefore, many collaborations have been postponed or even cancelled. However, collaborations that do not involve people travelling have proceeded with minor modifications.

We all had to adjust to the current situation by using platforms that serve as alternatives to face-to-face meetings. By using these powerful apps, we gain flexibility and avoid taking unnecessary plane journeys therefore saving costs and time. I guess the COVID-19 pandemic will impact how collaborations will be carried out in the future, even when the situation will be under control.

What tools have supported your ability to work remotely and stay connected with colleagues?

We have used various tools to support our remote research during the pandemic.

I think it’s no surprise when I say we used Zoom to carry out our weekly group meetings. During the lockdown, we also used Zoom to share a beer sometimes, to maintain a social life and our mental health! Zoom was also employed by EPFL for virtual seminars and lectures.

We used the Chrome remote desktopto work from home.

I also used Mendeley.I have actually always used Mendeley to organize my library of papers and it gives me access from anywhere. It was of great help during the lockdown. As mentioned, I was writing a review with few other colleagues and Mendeley makes it easy to share files. You can also copy references in any format.

Do you use Reaxys to support your work?

I use Reaxys on a daily basis to search for reaction routes, synthetic pathways and literature. I find it very convenient to have the experimental procedure readily available below the reaction, so there is no need to go to the publication and download the supporting information. Reaxys saves me quite a lot of time! I also like all the filters that help speed things up searching for a reaction

I find it very convenient to have the experimental procedure readily available below the reaction, so there is no need to go to the publication and download the supporting information. Reaxys saves me quite a lot of time!

—Dr. Ana García Herraiz

Finally, we would be interested to hear your opinion on what can be done to encourage and empower more women to pursue a career in science.

According to the UNESCO Institute for Statistics (UIS), women represent less than 30% of the R&D workforce worldwide, so there is still a huge gap for gender equality. The disparity is not remarkable at the bachelor’s degree level. The significant drop occurs at more advanced career levels, where women are largely underrepresented.

We need to promote awareness and overcome cultural gender biases not only within the scientific community but as a society. The role of parents and teachers is key to overcome gender-stereotypes, to help girls and young women feel self-confident, and to encourage them to pursue a career in science — or indeed in any field they wish. The system should also facilitate a better work–life balance for both parents to take care of children.

Connect with Dr. Ana García Herraiz on LinkedIn.