SCI Travel Bursary Recipient, Anthony Gee, Reports from Lisbon

4 Sept 2015

Anthony Gee was awarded an SCI Travel Bursary in 2015. Here, he describes how his attendance at the 19th European Symposium on Organic Chemistry, which took place between 12 and 16 July 2015, helped him in developing his networks and gave him experience in presenting his work.

‘Thanks to the award of a generous Messel Travel Bursary by SCI, I recently attended the 19th European Symposium on Organic Chemistry (ESOC), which took place in Lisbon, Portugal from the 12 to 16 July 2015. Running biennially for over 35 years, this event is very highly regarded in organic chemistry, hosting a multitude of oral presentations and posters on topics ranging from organic synthesis and catalysis to medicinal and biomolecular chemistry.

‘With its majestic old-town architecture, gorgeous coastal vistas, rich history and vibrant nightlife, the capital city of Portugal provided a perfect setting for this occasion. The conference was set at the Universidade de Lisboa, in the heart of Lisbon, making it easy to see sights, sample the culture and generally get a fulfilling experience of the city during any leisure time. Of particular note was the gala dinner organised by the conference committee, where an impressive musical was performed. This show presented the links between 20th century Portuguese history and the setting of the dinner itself, the famous Casino Estoril, which was the inspiration for the Ian Fleming novel Casino Royale.

‘This conference was the first time I had presented any work on my project so far, on the development of novel azulene chemistry, at an international event. On this occasion, I was invited to bring a poster, and fortunately, there was plenty of time to carry out detailed discussions with fellow attendees. There are few synthetic organic chemists that are familiar with the chemistry of azulenes, which was reflected in its absence across the posters - I noticed only one other poster with an azulene moiety displayed, which was one more than I was expecting. With this niche expertise in mind, it was hugely gratifying to be able to educate others on such a fascinating and underexplored class of compounds. The poster sessions allowed me to practice articulating the rationale and results of my project, as well as thinking on my feet to answer questions from attendees, both of which will be invaluable in helping to defend my thesis in an examination. It was, however, a very relaxed and friendly environment, and many expert tips and advice were imparted from surrounding students working on catalysis.

‘I attended the conference as the sole representative of the University of Bath, and this worked to my advantage as it encouraged me to make friends and develop networks. As any PhD student will know, it is highly important to make yourself known wherever you can, in order to help further your career prospects in chemistry, or perhaps to form collaborations. I was able to have discussions with highly-esteemed names, as well as to social with similarly interested people from many places in the world. I made particularly good connections with an individual from Penn State University and a group from University College Dublin, along with their supervisor. Perhaps one of the key strengths of this conference was its size; it provided a substantial audience to which attendees could present their research, but not too large as to prevent people from keeping track of new companions. Furthermore, parallel sessions for the oral presentations were not required, so people were never forced to miss anything.

‘The oral presentations themselves, whether from current PhD students, young academics or the plenary speakers, certainly did not disappoint. Many of the researchers did well to display infectious enthusiasm for their fields of research, and their contributions towards them. Nowhere, I believe, was this more apparent than with Prof Dean Toste of Berkeley, who delivered a presentation with as much panache and style as his superb methodologies in chiral phosphate anion catalysis. Many talks were carefully constructed around coherent stories, which was key to keeping the audience engaged throughout repeated 9am to 7pm schedules. One memorable account came from Prof Peter Chen of ETH Zurich, who talked about a strategy towards cyclopropanation published by V Franzen in 1960, which could not be repeated by Georg Wittig’s group, leading to a retraction of the paper. Chen himself, some 40 years later, used transition metal catalysis to corroborate the original results, and delivered the news by phone to a grateful Franzen, now well into his nineties. Tales, such as this one, that reflect the emotion one can invest into chemical research, transform good talks into great talks.

‘All in all, the five days I spent in Lisbon have been some of the most enjoyable and enlightening time spent during my postgraduate studies. Being able to advertise my project to like-minded people from diverse backgrounds has given me a new level of confidence in the novel chemistry I have worked hard towards and care greatly about. When I hear positive feedback, as well as perceptive observations and suggestions on how the project can be taken further, it serves as great encouragement for when I return to the laboratory.’

Anthony Gee
PhD student, University of Bath

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