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Dec. 20, 2021

Sparking sustainable catalysts

Laurean Ilies, Team Leader

Please describe your role at RIKEN.

I am the leader of the Advanced Organic Synthesis Team, a small team (nine people at the moment) of ambitious researchers who are inventing new synthetic methods that create molecules of interest for medicinal chemistry, materials science, etc. We develop new ways to directly react Earth-abundant molecules, such as hydrocarbons, and rapidly build molecular complexity. This is important because we can streamline the synthesis of target molecules, and thus save resources and energy, while minimizing waste. We also research the late-stage functionalization of complex molecules used in drugs; this is important because it builds molecular libraries focused on bioactivity, etc. Finally, we are trying to find Earth-abundant metal catalysts and reagents, rather than often-used precious metals, which will help create more sustainable synthetic chemistry products.

Has being at RIKEN helped your research?

RIKEN gives (relatively) young researchers a rather unique chance to start an independent career, backed by generous funding and strong infrastructure. I started working at RIKEN in 2018, and I was quite worried about the process of building a lab and a research team, but I was fortunate to receive tremendous help, and after three years things are going smoothly.

Picture of Laurean Ilies

What are the techniques and technologies you use to conduct your research?

The equipment we use the most is the nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) machine and elemental analysis for characterization of molecules, x-ray for crystallographic analysis, and the RIKEN supercomputer for molecular calculations.

What is the best thing about working at RIKEN?

I think that the support from various offices is great, and we have time to focus on research, rather than doing tons of administrative work. I would add that funding is generous, there is a lot of technical support (for molecular characterization, for example), and there are also ample opportunities for collaboration. The Wako campus also has excellent facilities for relaxing after work. I am a user of the tennis courts and swimming pool.

What has been your most memorable experience at RIKEN?

It took some time to build the laboratory because we require special settings to do organic reactions safely. The first wet lab was finished at the end of August 2021, and entering the brand-new lab was a very emotional experience for me.

How do you balance family life with your work at RIKEN?

I have three children, and they are still small and my wife also works full time. Because I do less experimental work and more desk work nowadays, it is easier to plan my time, and I also work from home sometimes.