Screenshot courtesy of http://science.sciencemag.org/

Chemistry Breakthrough Catalyzes Discussion on Research

A Boston College chemistry research team rung in the new year with the release of a major scientific breakthrough. Led by chemistry professor Jim Morken of Morken Research Group, the team consisted of BC graduate students Liang Zhang, Gabriel J. Lovinger, Emma K. Edelstein, Adam A. Szymaniak, and Matteo P. Chierchia.  Together they developed an improvement on the Suzuki cross-coupling chemical reaction, which is commonly used in the pharmaceutical industry, making it faster and less costly.

Prof. James Morken: Screenshot courtesy of www.bc.edu

Prof. James Morken: Screenshot courtesy of www.bc.edu

The Nobel Prize-winning Suzuki-Miyaura coupling technique uses two types of reactants, but Morken’s team developed the method further by utilizing a third reactant—thus the conjunctive cross-coupling, or C3, reaction was born.

“What we did was develop a variant of that process that joins three chemicals together to make a new compound,” Morken said. “It gives you, quickly, different types of structures than one would make with the Suzuki reaction. This would be a much more efficient way to make those structures.” The process behind the discovery took time—in fact, the team spent the entire past year working to improve upon the reaction.

“Like many ideas, it came from a casual conversation in the laboratory breaking down a problem into small pieces and then just asking, ‘What if we changed a piece?’ It took us a year to figure out how to change it and make it work well, but it has definitely been worth the effort,” Morken said.

Though they did not patent the discovery, Morken’s team is now focused on further developing the C3 reaction. He expects to continue working on it for the next 10 years to come.

Screenshot courtesy of https://www2.bc.edu/james-morken/

Morken Research Group: Screenshot courtesy of https://www2.bc.edu/james-morken/

"Our team is addressing the limitations found in the early stage of development and I think in the long term that this mode of catalysis will have an impact on the way organic compounds are manufactured, most likely those used in the pharmaceutical industry," Morken said. "If the underlying reactivity can be used in other catalytic chemical processes, then that should open up a broad new collection of chemical reactions that will be of use in chemical manufacture."

Considering the immense success he has attained thus far in his research career, Morken has valuable insight and advice for BC undergraduates aspiring to follow in his footsteps. The professor encourages students to be open-minded and to get involved in laboratory research at any level; luckily, BC provides students with plenty of opportunities to participate.

“I think that BC does an outstanding job presenting research opportunities for undergraduates compared to other universities I'm familiar with,” Morken said. “I have a medium-sized research group in chemistry and there are six undergraduates that work alongside my graduate students on organic chemistry projects. Compared to my colleagues at other universities, this is a pretty large number and it is made possible by a combination of enthusiasm from undergraduates and also by the resources provided by Boston College.”

According to Morken, some such opportunities are the Kozarich Scholars program in chemistry, the honors chemistry program, Advanced Study Grants, the Undergraduate Research Fellowship Program, and internships at a variety of companies in the Boston Biotech Hub.

“Some of the ways my students have taken advantage of all of these programs are to receive stipends allowing them to do summer research, to work at AstraZeneca as summer interns, or to go Norway for research conferences,” Morken said.

Though scientific research is a challenging path and research “never goes exactly nor as quickly as planned,” the professor is of the conviction that “if you can ignore all of that and remind yourself why you’re doing it, then it is both incredibly enjoyable and rewarding.”

“Problems in the sciences are always changing and they provide constant intellectual stimulation,” Morken said. “Plus, there is really nothing like realizing you are the first person ever to learn of a new phenomena or develop a new process, and the chance to have a real-world impact is incredibly inspiring.”

In his final piece of advice, Morken recommends that students take advantage of their professors’ resources and try to learn as much as possible while in their undergraduate years. “Study hard and realize you are amongst the very best in the world,” Morken said. “Some of the smartest scientists I have met are BC undergraduates (seriously, they blow me away!) so shoot for the stars with your career.”

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