This year's recipient of the Process Chemistry Award, Professor Tom Sheppard, speaks to Muriel Cozier ahead of SCI's Sustainability and Innovation Awards Dinner on 10 May in Westminster, where he and other SCI award recipients will be recognised for their achievements in science and industry.
What led you to study natural sciences, eventually becoming a professor?
At secondary school chemistry became my favourite subject. The teachers were excellent, and I enjoyed the mix of theoretical and practical work. It was a popular subject, almost half of the sixth form took chemistry – pretty unusual, I think!
Taking my studies further, I took natural sciences at University of Cambridge, which included some maths and physics. I had intended to work in industry after my degree, but doing research in the summer of my final year led me to consider doing a PhD, which I did with Prof Steve Ley. I did my postdoc with Prof Willie Motherwell. Between them they convinced me to think about a career in academia.
An EPSRC fellowship allowed me to start my own research group. I’ve been at UCL for 19 years, and I’ve been very lucky to learn from some great chemists; Jon Burton (now a professor at Oxford) got me interested in organic chemistry, and Darren Dixon (also now a professor at Oxford) supervised me in the lab as a PhD student.
What are your thoughts on early years education in chemistry, and STEM in general?
It’s hugely important to develop an interest in science at an early age. I only encountered chemistry when I was 11. It’s encouraging to see that my son, six, is learning about science and doing some scientific observations at school. Given the everyday importance of science and technology it should be easy to get people interested in STEM careers.
You worked for GSK after you graduated. Could you tell us about your time there?
I had an enjoyable year working at GSK in two different labs. The first months were designing new chemistry and making a library of compounds for screening. I then moved into a research unit focusing on publishable research on novel solid phase chemistry. My first publications came while working there. I gained a lot of lab experience giving me confidence in my lab skills ahead of my PhD. I learned about the chemistry commonly used in the pharmaceutical industry, which helped shape some of the projects for my research group.
‘I have attended a lot of SCI conferences and events over my career. They draw a good mix of people from industry and academia. I spent a very enjoyable four years as chair of the SCI Young Chemists’ Panel, allowing me to work with a fantastic group of chemists from across the UK.’
Your group is focused on ‘developing novel solutions to challenging chemical problems.’ Could you outline some of the specific problems that your group is focusing on?
I was initially inspired by an article published in 2006 outlining the most common reactions used in pharmaceutical synthesis, as well as some of their drawbacks. These included amide formation and displacement/substitution of alcohols – not a focus for academic research, as they are achieved via several methods.
The challenge is to do these reactions efficiently! Most amide formation, a simple bond forming reaction, generates a lot of waste. We have been working on catalysts that can mediate the reaction and produce a molecule of water as a by-product.
Nucleophilic substitution of alcohols is also a big challenge in terms of efficiency, but with appropriate catalytic methods the by-product would be a water molecule.
We’ve started projects in organofluorine chemistry, developing methods for accessing underexplored classes of fluorinated molecules.
Tom was Chair of the SCI Young Chemists' Panel for four years.
A common theme in your research group is the development of new methods for activation or formation of carbon-oxygen bonds. Could you explain the importance of this research and where and how it can be applied?
We have focused on this problem in a range of different reactions. The formation of amides is a common process in organic chemistry. We have developed a catalyst for amide formation that is being used by the pharmaceutical industry. We hope it could be used on a large scale to prepare amides and drug molecules/APIs more efficiently. We’ve also looked at making amides from a different perspective. With my colleague, Matt Powner, we have developed a method to form peptides catalytically under prebiotic conditions.
We have also explored sugars derived from waste carbohydrate biomass as a source of sustainable organic molecules. The challenge to exploiting them as feedstocks lies in the high number of carbon-oxygen bonds, which are too numerous for many applications. We have been working on ways to selectively remove some of these bonds as well as methods to introduce nitrogen atoms.
Traditional sugar chemistry relies on protecting groups to achieve this but is inefficient. With my colleague, Helen Hailes, we have developed selective chemical reactions and biocatalytic transformations circumventing the need for protecting groups, enabling the conversion of sugars into chiral heterocyclic molecules that could be used in medicinal chemistry. Chemists have a huge role to play in making use of waste biomass for high-value applications.
Could you share some of the hurdles that your research is having to overcome to develop the new methods that you have mentioned?
Chemistry throws up unexpected results, and many of the reactions we try do not turn out as we had hoped. However, I would say that obtaining continuous funding is the biggest challenge. It can be frustrating working on a project that is yielding interesting results but not have funding to continue it. The turnaround time for grants is very slow, projects can be in limbo for a long time.
You were recently presented with SCI’s Process Chemistry Award. How important for you, and your research group, is this award?
It’s very important, and great, that people like the work we are doing and think it has practical applications. We want to discover new reactivity and catalysts that are useful, and this award shows we are (at least partially) succeeding! I’ve been lucky to work with a lot of talented research students and postdocs, and the award recognises their many contributions over the years as well as my own.
What benefits have you gained from being an active member of SCI?
I have attended a lot of SCI conferences and events over my career. They draw a good mix of people from industry and academia. I spent a very enjoyable four years as chair of the SCI Young Chemists’ Panel, allowing me to work with a fantastic group of chemists from across the UK. It was particularly satisfying to bring in new meetings that were of interest to our group and then see them being well received by the community.