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Better living through chemistry: Mark Lautens

Killam Research Fellowships at U of T

Professor Mark Lautens is one of three U of T professors receiving Killam Research Fellowships this year (photo courtesy Professor Lautens)

Renowned for both his research and teaching, the Department of Chemistry's Mark Lautens is a University Professor—the highest distinction awarded a faculty member at the University of Toronto—dedicated to developing better pharmaceuticals.

Lautens is also one of three U of T faculty to receive a Killam Research Fellowship this year from the Canada Council for the Arts. U of T faculty are receiving half of this year's fellowships, which provide researchers with $70,000 each year for two years to support their work.

These fellowships will support Lautens' research to develop more effective and environmentally sound pharmaceuticals, Professor Jeremy Quastel's work to crack the code on mathematical formulas and Professor Sali Tagliamonte's efforts to explore the evolution of Canadian English.

U of T has received 121 Killam Research Fellowships since the program was established in 1965  to honour eminent Canadian scholars and scientists engaged in research projects of outstanding merit in the humanities, social sciences, natural sciences, health sciences, engineering and interdisciplinary studies within these fields.

U of T News asked Professor Lautens for a glimpse inside his lab and lecture hall.

Tell us about your research.

My research involves trying to invent new chemical reactions that make the synthesis of molecules of interest to the pharmaceutical industry more efficient. Ideally we want less waste, fewer operations and steps, cleaner reactions and access to new kinds of structural classes of molecules that may have useful activity fighting disease. 

One recent focus of our work is on making many chemical reactions all take place in a specified sequence so as to do many steps without any processing of the intermediates along the way. This idea has been coined "domino" reactions since one reaction happens after the next in a very controlled way, just like dominos falling one after the other. 

Our particular slant on this idea is to have multiple catalysts present in the reaction vessel so that each step is done under the mildest possible conditions so that we can combine many components and further increase efficiency. Another goal is to try to discover reactions that involve the combination of two ingredients that do not produce waste. These reactions have been called "atom economical."
 
What kind of impact could it have on society?

Society needs the molecules made by chemists. Some are drugs, some are agrochemicals and some are high performance materials we have around us every day. One way to reduce the impact of making these molecules is to find ways to synthesize them that take as few steps and minimize the worst aspects of synthesis, namely the use of solvents and some of the purification techniques. If we could ever achieve the efficiency found in nature, by having all the necessary ingredients and catalysts present in a single vessel (be that a cell or a reaction vessel), then chemistry could be more readily understood for all the good it does to improve our lives.
 
What drew you to this field—and to this particular focus?

I was quite lucky to get into chemistry and eventually work in a university. I had an organic chemistry professor named Gordon Lange invite me to join his lab during my days as an undergraduate at Guelph. I was too naive to imagine I would be considered for a summer research position but he sought me out based on my performance in his organic chemistry courses. Like many of our students, my family had little education and we had no particular connections that would have helped me land such a job nor were they worldly and informed about the value of chemistry to society. I recall I had the choice between returning to work at Stelco and earning a lot of money, or going to work in a research lab and barely being able to afford to go to school the following year. When asked, my mother was very cleartake the job in the lab. Obviously you don't need a lot of education to have a lot of common sense! It was the best professional decision I ever made. That very same professor took me to attend a conference in Buffalo and I had a chance to see some of the leaders in the field of catalysis. I was hooked.
 
Why U of T?

I left Canada to do a PhD and Post-Doctoral Fellow (PDF) because at the time there were virtually no academic jobs available here and very few people in the world whose research combined the fields of organic synthesis and catalysis. By the time I was a PDF at Harvard, jobs starting opening up back home and eventually there were many positions. I applied and visited several places. I was convinced to come to Toronto by my soon-to-be colleague Bryan Jones. He made a compelling case but most of all I thought he would be a great colleague. I also felt Toronto had the brightest future because there was so much change about to happen in our department yet it had such a strong reputation globally. Also I wanted to be near my family who were in Hamilton.
 
What advice would you give a student just starting out in this field?

Research is hard work and it has a high proportion of failure-a bit like being a fan of the Leafs. Discovering something new (and useful) is not that easy. It takes a special kind of person to endure the failure because they sense success will be so sweet. I would say students should follow whatever subject makes them feel passion. Chemistry is one option but not the only one or even the best one if your heart is not in it. Try and love what you doit will make it easier when all the crappy parts of any job have to get done. Once you commit to chemistry then try and find problems that are big as possible then break them down into manageable projects. It is hard to hit a home run so don't be afraid to strike out some of the time. And keep on going even if you get on base because of an error. A run is a run and sometimes you stumble across something in science that is much more than you ever planned or imagined!