You were named an Officer of the Order of Canada for globally significant contributions to organic chemistry. Can you tell me a bit more about your research that led this honour?
Lately when I give a lecture it's about "improving efficiency in organic synthesis" demonstrating the potential in pharmaceutical research. So a major part of the recognition was for developing new chemical reactions, particularly which give fewer side products. By using metals as catalysts we can try to optimize and invent reactions and by so doing reduce waste at all different stages in the synthesis process.
Another thing that we've been trying to do is mimic Nature by putting many catalysts together in the same flask. In chemistry, what people have traditionally done is do a reaction, then another reaction, then another reaction, and in between each reaction you have to do a lot of manual labour, which also wastes solvent and time. So we’re trying to mimic Nature by putting everything together, and by reducing the number of operations, improve efficiency.
The other thing I’ve done is train a lot of students. One of the biggest aspects of my job that I'm proud of, and that I think is most significant, is to train people, who are now working in industry or academia, doing research in similar kinds of fields.
You have a long list of honours and high profile awards: University Professor, Bryan Jones Distinguished Professor,
AstraZeneca Professor of Organic Synthesis, Killam Research Fellow. What does it mean to you to be appointed to the Order of Canada?
I think each type of award has a different meaning. The Order of Canada, at least to me, is very different than any other type of recognition I have received. The people who are assessing you aren't scientists for the most part, but cut across a broad cross section of society. By selecting you they're saying that you’ve tried to make a difference in the country. It's kind of humbling to imagine that you have had that effect because in a way it's very hard to measure. When you look at the committee of the Order of Canada you see it's very, very diverse and for those people to come to the conclusion that you did something is stunning.
Reflecting on your career to date, what are some of your proudest achievements?
There's no doubt that the biggest source of satisfaction is training students. I look at how students, who start off with very different backgrounds and goals, end up being successful during their PhD and in their profession. It's a huge positive feeling to see them develop and become leaders.
One of the really great students who worked with me started off as a high school teacher and came back to school and ended up doing fantastic science prior to moving on in his own career. Another student was initially trained in human biology and then returned to take some chemistry courses prior to completing his PhD. He's done a fantastic job as an academic. Other people have gone to industry, started in one area and then moved into completely new areas within the broadly defined field of chemistry. To see them start their own companies, become vice-presidents, directors, is pretty amazing.
So I think by far the best feeling is when you think of the larger family of people who've worked with you. I've had maybe 175 grad students and postdocs now and they've come from maybe 20 countries, and then I've had hundreds of visitors and undergrads. Some of the undergrads have gone off to do great things, to go do PhDs at the best schools in the world and succeed, so that's a pretty nice feeling.
The other thing that's nice is when you see somebody use your chemistry. If you discover something, you know you live in a little bubble in a little world, and then all of a sudden you read the literature and see that a whole bunch of people are doing similar things, or taking your initial discovery and advancing it, so I think it's pretty satisfying to think that other people are using what you've learned to advance the field even further.
Did you have anything else that you want to share with our department and alumni?
I think at the end of the day what has made Toronto really exceptional is the students. That includes the quality of the undergraduate students that we get, and the graduate students that we've been able to attract. My students have turned my good ideas into better ideas, and my bad ideas into workable ideas. So I think the #1 thing for alumni to know is that they're very important. Their contributions are central to our collective and individual success. Not just whatever support they give financially, but that their presence here actually made a difference to how each and every one of us has done. I think it's impossible to overstate their importance. The best schools have the best students and then the professors can do what they are trained to do, but without the students nothing else really happens.