Where and when did you obtain your PhD diploma?
I received my PhD in 2016 from Stockholm University, in Sweden.
What was the topic of your PhD project?
We were developing heterogeneous catalysts based on a class of porous materials called MOFs, which were making waves at the time. Interestingly, this topic was almost as new for my supervisor at it was for me. There were many mistakes I’ve made along the way and many lessons to learn, but it was an exciting experience.
How did you get interested in Medicinal Chemistry?
Some of these catalysts I mentioned above were active enough to raise interest from a big pharma company in Sweden. At one point, I got the chance to spend a couple of months in their labs and test my catalyst on their molecules. It was a fascinating experience to see such a vast amount of resources dedicated to science and to curing disease. It was then when I started to think it would be nice to be part of this effort and that this is a topic that would keep me curious for a long time to come.
Where do you work at the moment and what is your current position?
I am currently a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Zurich, in Switzerland. I have been here for about one year and a half now.
What are your current research interests?
We are interested to develop chemical probes that interrogate the function of major transcriptional co-regulators CBP/EP300. These are chromatin-remodeling factors involved in epigenetic regulation with essential roles in healthy embryonic development. However, their precise mechanisms of action and roles in oncologic malignancies are not yet elucidated. We focus on small-molecule inhibitors but also new modalities such as PROTACs and all sorts of other conjugated entities.
What do you like most in your job?
I like to think that our job is to create things (molecules) that have not existed before and use them to answer biological questions that could not be answered before, which is cool. Also, the freedom to test in the lab whatever idea I may have dreamt the night before is a priceless feeling. Another one of the rewards is being constantly surrounded by extremely intelligent people.
What kind of tasks your job includes?
I am spending the better part of my time doing organic synthesis and whatever is left, I spend it on reading, planning and trying to think of new solutions and strategies. I wish I could dedicate more time to that ever increasing pile of “to read asap” literature. However, we are a small group of people with not enough hands in the lab and way too many ideas. I also spend a considerable amount of time trying to prevent my younger colleagues from getting discouraged too quickly. I think that should be part of every postdoc’s responsibilities. Over the next couple of months, I hope I’ll get the chance to spend more time playing with zebrafish. But this all depends on how the synthesis goes.
What kind of skills your job requires?
There are some technical skills required, but I found that I could teach all the practicalities to a student in less than one semester. And these are probably the first skills that will be mastered by automated robo-chemists. Therefore, I cannot rely on that alone for the future. More important is the ability to connect different pieces of information and ask the right questions.
What do you consider your biggest achievement in your scientific career?
For the time being, my future goals are still considerably bigger than my achievements. There were perhaps a few moments when I felt that I must be doing something right. But I would rather answer this question in a few years’ time.
What are the features of a successful PhD student or postdoc?
Resilience is by far the most important. And that rare ability to not lose sight of the bigger picture and of your bigger goals, in the face of daily minor setbacks and obstacles. Then comes curiosity and being open to learn from others. Not least, ethics, in all its forms.
How would you describe yourself as a supervisor?
My experience in this direction is rather limited. There have been a couple of BSc and MSc students for whom I was responsible. If anything, I have learned that I need to work on my patience. Still working on that.
What is the most embarrassing thing you did in the lab while doing experiments?
I don’t think I have ever done something stupid enough to be memorable. Not more than the regular throwing your organic phase to waste or breaking the Dewar and giving everyone a mini-heart attack. Nevertheless, it was quite embarrassing when the cleaning staff found me at 6 a.m. on an inflatable mattress in the middle of our computer room, after I had missed the last metro home.
Which scientist do you admire the most and why?
I would choose Edward O. Wilson for the life-long dedication to his passion, for relentlessly advocating for science, for being a brilliant storyteller and for the energy that he still invests into seeding the same kind of passion in the hearts of young generations of scientists. Books such as “Letters to a young scientist” should be read by everyone, in the darkest moments of their PhD studies.
Did you experience any unfair situations during your scientific career?
Nothing serious. Even though I have spent the previous seven years as an immigrant, I was privileged enough to work in Stockholm and Zurich, which both have a highly developed culture of equality and tolerance, in the society as well as in the lab.
Which paper of yours you are the proudest of and why?
I have not published much during my medchem postdoc and the most interesting work has yet to come out. However, I am proud of a paper recently published from my PhD work (DOI: 10.1021/jacs.8b03505). This was an enormous collaborative effort to portray the entire lifecycle of a catalyst, which we had previously developed. We could take clear snapshots from the bench-stable precatalyst, to activated form in solution, aging into different species that operate through different mechanisms, and finally succumbing to deactivation pathways. It is a whole story from birth to death and it is an empowering feeling to get that kind of detailed insight into a process that you have been struggling to understand for years.
Which field of medicinal chemistry do you consider the most promising in the future?
I’m optimistic about the potential to use deep learning tools to predict pharmacokinetics and toxicity and hopefully reduce to some extent the demand for animal models.
What would you like to ask from other medicinal chemists?
I would be happy to see more medicinal chemists embracing more modern and less wasteful synthetic tools, along with the risks that it implies. Read Jonas Bostrom’s analysis on this topic (DOI: 10.1021/acs.jmedchem.5b01409).
What would you guess to be the next major breakthrough in medicinal chemistry?
I would bet my money on drugs based on new modalities, and in particular targeted protein degraders (PROTACs). They represent a fundamentally different mode of action that could, in theory, target proteins that lack a high affinity ligand or a well-defined enzymatic site. This technology could enable researchers to go after oncoproteins that were previously out of reach with small molecule inhibitors.
Want more stories!? Read them all on https://www.efmc.info/iamamedicinalchemist