Department of Chemistry, University of Toronto e-Distillations

Interview with Professor Mark Taylor

Professor Mark Taylor is the winner of the 2016 McLean Award, one of the University of Toronto’s premiere distinctions. The McLean Award, endowed by alumnus Mr. William F. McLean, supports basic research and is granted annually to an outstanding research leader within 12 years of receipt of their PhD working in the fields of physics, chemistry, computer science, mathematics, engineering sciences, and the theory and methods of statistics.  This is the 3rd year running that the award has been granted to a chemist; the award was made to Professor Patrick Gunning in 2015 and Professor Aaron Wheeler in 2014. 

You received the McLean Award for your work on oligosaccharides.  What research are you doing in this area?

Our work in the sugar area is aimed at the question of how to develop chemical reactions that make bonds to sugars at particular positions. We want to make non-enzymatic, ‘small molecule’ catalysts that can bind to a sugar at a specific place, and then cause that position to be activated so that it undergoes some type of chemical change.

We are trying to use those types of chemical reactions to make oligosaccharides that are important in glycobiology research. We also would like to develop ways of converting sugars into other sorts of valuable products like polymers or surfactants. Sugars are the most abundant renewable chemical feedstocks, but the challenge is that they just have too many functional groups to do the kinds of transformations that chemists are accustomed to using. So we're trying to develop catalysts that will let us take relatively abundant sugar-derived biomass and do reactions at specific positions.

In my McLean Award application, I focused on using our catalysts, which are boron-based molecules, to make polyesters from sugars in selective ways. Besides being renewable, sugars are often non-toxic, which is an important advantage in the polymer area. If you're trying to use these polymers in biomedical applications like drug delivery or tissue engineering, then they're going to degrade to compounds that are known to be safe.

You were also recognized for your ability to attract and retain students. Can you comment on your experience as an educator?

Graduate and undergraduate student training is one of the most rewarding parts of the job. I especially enjoy working with grad students, where you have a number of years to see them develop as scientists and as people, really, over the time they're in the lab. My research group tends to be around 8-10 grad students and I hope to continue to be able to attract enough funding to maintain that kind of level.

In terms of attracting students to the group, I'd say that my existing students are probably the engine that makes that happen rather than any sort of great sales job from me personally. It's kind of an auto-catalytic process when you have a group of intelligent, motivated students who enjoy being part of a research environment. Prospective students meet them and it looks like they're having fun, so they decide to join.

What are your thoughts on the importance of awards, such as the McLean, that recognize fundamental research?

I'm really grateful that U of T instituted the McLean award to recognize basic research, and has sustained it over the years. The types of problems that interest my students and I the most are often quite open-ended. We don't know where the research is going to lead us, let alone whether there will be a practical application at the end of it. For example, our research on activation of sugars started because of an unexpected result from a control experiment.

The McLean Award was an important boost, and it will allow us to work on some types of problems that we otherwise were not going to be able to pursue. This idea of using catalysts to control the architectures of sugar-derived polymers is the specific research direction that we're going to push on a little harder thanks to the additional research support. I feel very fortunate to have been chosen for the McLean award, but the broader context is that we have to think carefully about whether our funding system is evolving in ways that will allow Canadian scientists to pursue their fundamental research ideas in enough depth to be competitive with the best groups worldwide.

As an alumnus of the department yourself, is there anything else that you would like to share with the department and alumni?

When I arrived at Harvard for grad school, I found that my undergrad education from U of T had put me in a great position to succeed, both academically and on the research side. I was a little intimidated to get started, but after a few weeks in the grad courses there was a feeling of ‘OK, I am equipped to handle this’.

In terms of research experience, I was lucky enough to work with a really outstanding grad student in Mark Lautens' group, Keith Fagnou, who then himself developed into one of Canada's outstanding young professors. He was basically the person who taught me how to run chemical reactions as an undergrad student, and that was a unique opportunity for me. Working in the Lautens group with Keith in my second year of undergrad was what convinced me that I wanted to pursue research in chemistry. I certainly realized at that time that the talent level of the grad students in this department was really high, and one of the reasons I really wanted to come back here was to have the chance to work with grad students at that level. We're able to pull in outstanding students from all around the country, which is a huge plus.

By Mandy Koroniak
Posted November 8, 2016