How working outside your research specialty can lead to “a fantastic journey”

An organic chemist ventures into radiochemistry, allowing her to explore challenges with fresh eyes

Veronique quote

As an organic chemist who also works in radiochemistry, Dr. Véronique Gouverneur, Professor of Chemistry at the University of Oxford, knows the value of stepping outside your comfort zone. It can be an exciting approach, allowing you to take on demanding challenges with a fresh perspective. It also highlights the value of trusted information and the need to manage and curate the vast amount of information available.

Véronique’s speciality is the chemistry of fluorine, and her research involves finding new ways to synthesise organic fluorine compounds. These are used to help fast track drug discovery program, as medicinal chemists commonly adopt fluorine substitution to study complex biological problems (19F NMR) or improve the ADME properties of possible drug candidates.

Still, for Véronique, some of her most exciting work has emerged from this research program by venturing into radiochemistry:

What’s really been the signature activity of my lab is taking another look at the field of 18F-radiochemistry for Positron Emission tomography, a hugely important imaging modality use to diagnose diseases and to facilitate drug discovery. That has been a fantastic journey – I had no experience in radiochemistry, so in some ways, that led us exploring avenues possibly unexpected for experts in the field.

Obviously, diving into a new area of chemistry requires preparation. Véronique, who will give the keynote speech at Elsevier’s 2019 Reaxys PhD Prize Symposium October 3 and 4 in Amsterdam, drew on the power of her network to familiarize herself with radiochemistry. As she explained:

I had a colleague in the inorganic chemistry department, with experience in 64Cu (copper 64) radiochemistry, and he was interested in some mechanistic questions that we felt could be answered applying 18F (fluorine-18) radiochemistry. By then, I had attended numerous conferences in the field of fluorine chemistry, and it became quickly apparent that there was much more that could be done to facilitate access to 18F-labeled molecules for applications in PET. This was the starting point of a totally new avenue of research in my laboratory.

Véronique also drew on Elsevier’s Reaxys platform as a way of keeping up to speed with information and deciding which research deserves her attention:

I remember when I was a PhD student, the challenge was to find information. Nowadays, the challenge is sifting through the information overload that we have, defining what’s good to use and what’s not so reliable. Reaxys is extremely useful for that – because you have that ‘trust’ label, the endorsement of quality. In turn, that sustainable quality is based on the people who are involved – their trust and integrity, and the reputation of the community in charge.

I think one of the multiple roles of a corporate entity like Elsevier is to ensure that there is never compromise on quality, trust and integrity for whatever reason. You have to maintain those core values.

From Véronique’s perspective, one of the core skills researchers must develop is an ever-keener awareness of information and how to deal with it. “I think we have to teach students – from the primary school age, actually – how to manage information and let them be wary of what they can find.”

The blurred line between fundamental and applied research

Véronique’s work plays an important role in drug discovery and disease prevention, which she described as rewarding. That said, the distinction between fundamental research and applied research can be blurred:

I’ve said on many occasions, it’s equally important to fund both. In chemistry, for example, a molecule can be designed to serve a function, whether in energy or medicine or materials, for example. The problem is that in this fast moving world, where everything has to be done quickly, the expectation is that every fundamental piece of chemistry has to have an impact directly. I see that as more often unrealistic. You need freedom to operate in a zone where you can make a difference, whether it’s in an intellectual sense or a direct impact in society – or both, of course.

As Véronique points out, her own research demonstrates the unbreakable link between fundamental and applied research: “I’ve been lucky in the sense that the research we do has a direct impact on society, diagnosing and curing diseases, but really the chemistry we do on a daily basis is totally fundamental. Again, what should always prevail is the highest possible quality of science; from there all is possible.”

With that in mind, Véronique has some clear advice for researchers who are keen to see their work make a difference to the world:

I really try and educate my students and my postdocs that it’s about doing the best possible science with a focus on genuine creativity and advance in knowledge, in preference to incremental and predicable “me-too” research. When I go to the lab – and I feel really lucky and privileged to do what I do – I’m equally as excited about discovering new things about fluoride reactivity at a fundamental level as I am about hoping to make an impact at a clinical level.

That’s what doing the best science possible is about: identifying important fundamental or applied chemistry problems and finding impactful answers through carefully conducted research.

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