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University of Alberta organic chemist receives top young Canadian scientist prize

A University of Alberta organic chemist has been named the 2008 winner of the prestigious Steacie Prize for outstanding scientific research carried out in Canada. The prize is one of Canada's most prestigious science awards encompassing a wide range of disciplines including mathematics, engineering, chemistry, physics, and biology.

Dr. Dennis Hall is an organic chemist working on applications of compounds known as boronic acids and esters. While today's chemists can make virtually any molecule they choose, the real challenge is figuring out which molecule will serve a useful, specific purpose, then finding a way to produce that compound efficiently, says Hall. Doing so could save millions of dollars in drug development or improve current industrial processes.

A mature field, new reactions in organic chemistry are not common. However Hall and his team have uncovered new ways to activate organic molecules to make them undergo new reactions, resulting in significant new uses for these compounds while also making major theoretical contributions.

One of Hall's recent discoveries is that certain boronic acids are particularly good catalysts for making amides under mild conditions at room temperature (amides are important compounds whose functions include bonding peptides together, which in turn form proteins). Amides appear in more than a quarter of all pharmaceutical drugs, but traditional methods to manufacture them are complicated and generate a lot of waste, some of it toxic. Hall's work helps further efforts of making chemistry "greener", more environmentally friendly by increasing the efficiency of chemical processes and producing less waste.

"It is really worthwhile to improve known reactions with boron chemistry because it is a less toxic element than many other elements," he said.

Hall admits 2008 was a bit of a "golden year". Early in the year he received the Merck Frosst Centre for Therapeutic Research Award from the Canadian Society of Chemistry, which recognizes distinguished contributions in the fields of organic chemistry or biochemistry while working in Canada. He then received the NSERC E.W.R. Steacie Memorial Fellowships one of Canada's premier science and engineering research awards.

"I am always pleased to see organizations that recognize and fund basic science," commented Hall. "While I'm not making the drugs that will be on the market in two to three years, I'm helping build the foundation for those drugs to be made. Organic chemistry is a major contributor to the large increase of life expectancy in the past century, and I feel that the Steacie Prize recognizes the importance of investing in this field".

The Steacie Prize - worth $15,000 - is handed out each year and recognizes exceptional contributions from a scientist or engineer of 40 years of age or less. Winners are selected by a panel appointed by the E.W.R. Steacie Memorial Fund, a private foundation dedicated to the advancement of science and engineering in Canada ( Previous University of Alberta recipients of the Steacie Prize include N.J. Dovichi (Chemistry, 1991), B.D. Sykes (Biochemistry, 1982), and G. Rostoker (Physics, 1979).

With all the recognition, Hall is grateful to the colleagues who nominated him, and points out his success is a team effort.

"There is nothing more satisfying than writing a good paper with a student and seeing their happy face when it gets accepted in a journal," he explained.


Contact: Julie Naylor
University of Alberta

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