Remembering the Reaxys PhD Prize Symposium 2019

Another edition of the Reaxys PhD Prize has drawn to its close and we’ve selected our highly deserving winners. Michael Geeson, Aaron Trowbridge and Yujia Qing each received the coveted title of winner in recognition of their outstanding scientific research and excellent final presentations.

The winners were announced at the Reaxys PhD Prize Symposium 2019 along with the award for best poster, which went to Andrew Wilson. In addition, all the new finalists were inducted into the Reaxys Prize Club.

Dr. Yujia Qing and Dr. Aaron Trowbridge, two of the 2019 Reaxys PhD Prize winners!

Dr. Yujia Qing and Dr. Aaron Trowbridge, two of the 2019 Reaxys PhD Prize winners!

Dr Andrew Wilson receiving the Best Poster Award from Dr Friedrich Kroll and Prof Barry Trost.

Dr Andrew Wilson receiving the Best Poster Award from Dr Friedrich Kroll and Prof Barry Trost.

However, the Symposium is always far more than an awards ceremony. It is a celebration of the best and brightest young minds working in the chemical sciences; the culmination of a year of anticipation; and a superb opportunity to delve deep into cutting-edge research.

The Reaxys PhD Prize Symposium 2019 took place on October 3 and 4 in the historic and striking Koepelkerk in Amsterdam. The building opened 135 years ago in 1884: the birth year of pioneering African-American chemist St. Elmo Brady and Nobel Prize-winning chemist Peter Debye; an important year for research into malnutrition and microbes; and the year that Hermann Emil Fischer proposed a structure for purine and began his work on the chemistry of glucose. It is highly likely that some of the science discussed at the 2019 Symposium will still be equally well-remembered 135 years from now.

The 2019 Symposium took place in the canal district of Amsterdam

The 2019 Symposium took place in the canal district of Amsterdam

The opening reception took place in the foyer of the Koepelkerk

The opening reception took place in the foyer of the Koepelkerk

The Symposium opened in the foyer of the Koepelkerk with a short welcome from Dr. Friedrich Kroll, who reminded the finalists that the event is their opportunity to discuss science with people in many fields of chemistry; to make new and lasting connections; and to enjoy what is a celebration of their talent and dedication to science. The finalists and other guests moved from there to one of Amsterdam’s famous canals, where they boarded a boat to take a tour of the city and get their first proper opportunity to talk and get to know each other.

Guests boarding the boat for a canal tour of Amsterdam

Guests boarding the boat for a canal tour of Amsterdam

Finalists networking and getting to know each other on the boat tour

Finalists networking and getting to know each other on the boat tour

This was followed by the first poster session in the Koepelkerk’s gallery. The space around the finalists’ posters buzzed with intense conversations and friendly chatter as some finalists got into deep discussions about their work, while others enjoyed reunions with former colleagues or made new acquaintances. The members of the Reaxys Advisory Board and other members of the Reaxys Prize Club also joined the discussions.

The poster session allowed finalists to discuss their research

The poster session allowed finalists to discuss their research

Lively discussions took place throughout the evening

Lively discussions took place throughout the evening

Day two of the event was focused on presentations. In the main chamber of the Koepelkerk, under the high dome with the great pipe organ as their backdrop, the keynote speaker, the ten shortlisted finalists and two former finalists gave their talks. Many of the attendees commented on how quickly the day seemed to go thanks to the high standard and fascinating content of the presentations.

The keynote speaker, Professor Véronique Gouverneur of the University of Oxford, opened the event with a close look at how fluorine chemistry is being used to diagnose and cure diseases. She went in depth on the chemistry but kept it accessible to all the attendees. She also emphasized the importance of interdisciplinary collaborations, reminding the finalists that this is their opportunity to build connections with people they might never meet at other conferences.

Then it was the turn of the shortlisted finalists. Aya Eizawa of the University of Tokyo spoke about a nature-inspired method for catalytic nitrogen fixation under ambient conditions. Since her process does not require the harsh conditions of the currently preferred Haber-Bosch reaction, it is of considerable interest.

Julie L. Fenton of Pennsylvania State University gave a lively and very accessible talk about a method for creating libraries of heterostructural nanoparticles. The methods described allowed the generation of 47 unique structures from just 3 synthons, which is an incredible feat in this area of science.

Yujia Qing of the University of Oxford spoke next, describing how she managed to create a “molecular hopper” — a chemical machine that can carry polymer cargos in the desired direction. She very effectively explained the science behind this useful and impressive discovery, which could have potential in nanopore sequencing. Her research secured her one of the three winner titles for 2019.

Alena Hölzl-Hobmeier of the Technische Universität München reminded the audience how important it is not to give up in research, even on the worst days. In her research on catalytic deracemization of chiral allenes through excitation with visible light, she encountered major issues, but went back and discovered something that led to a very successful conclusion.

Andrew Pun of Colombia University gave a talk that went from the chemistry of infrared photoredox catalysis to the potential of the technique in medicine. His light and entertaining style made even the more challenging concepts accessible to the whole audience and the idea of photomedicine proved intriguing to many.

After lunch and a second opportunity to view the posters, Mike Geeson of MIT gave his talk in an unusual way. At the last minute, he was unable to make it to the event, so the organizers made it possible for him to present through a telecommunications app. His research focused on finding a more environmentally friendly way to obtain chemicals traditionally synthesized from white phosphorus. Despite not being in the room, he secured a win — testament to his outstanding science.

Michael Geeson delivered his presentation remotely from MIT

Michael Geeson delivered his presentation remotely from MIT

Alena Hölzl-Hobmeier of the Technische Universität München giving her presentation

Alena Hölzl-Hobmeier of the Technische Universität München giving her presentation

Robert Tromans of the University of Bristol came next with a talk on a breakthrough with huge potential for diabetes management. He found an exceptional receptor for glucose, capable of differentiating it from even very similar compounds. It was a long design process with many challenges, but the result has already proved incredibly successful.

Aaron Trowbridge of the University of Cambridge delivered a fascinating talk on the details of finding a new multicomponent reaction that generates alkylamines from simple building blogs. Alkylamines are one of the most important molecules in organic chemistry, so their successful, high-yield synthesis is of considerable interest. His excellent research secured him the third of three wins for 2019.

Andrew Wilson of the University of Bath described organocalcium-mediated nucleophilic alkylation of benzene. He showed that calcium has potential in alkylation, despite the popularity of magnesium-based Grignard reagents. He closed his talk echoing a sentiment shared by many of these brilliant young researchers: he’s ready to get back to the lab and move on with his research!

Xin Zhang of Nanyang Technical University in Singapore closed the session of shortlisted finalist presentations with a look at his work on an enantioconvergent halogenophilic nucleophilic substitution reaction. His poster had been a site of considerable discussion and his talk also provoked several questions.

After a short break, two members of the Reaxys Prize Club gave presentations. Reaxys PhD Prize 2014 winner Professor Dawen Niu spoke about carbohydrate chemistry and described the state of research in the Niu group on this essential natural product. 2011 finalist Dr. Andy Chapman, CEO of Carbometrics, gave an entertaining and informative talk on his career. He focused on how it is possible to go from academia to industry (and back) and encouraged the 2019 finalists not to put limitations on their career paths.

Advisory Board member Professor Li-Zhu Wu led the certificate ceremony celebrating all the finalists and Professor Barry M. Trost took the stage to give the winners their awards. This ceremony was followed by a gala dinner. The atmosphere was joyful and relaxed, and there were still some surprises to follow. Professor Eiichi Nakamura took to the stage with his flute for a beautiful rendition of a haunting piece of music and Professor Ged Parkin treated the room to some displays of stage magic — both proving to the finalists that one can be a highly successful scientist and excel in other ways.

As we say goodbye to one edition of the Reaxys PhD Prize, we’re already looking forward to the next one — and we’re sure the 2020 Symposium will be just as fascinating!

Venue

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