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My studies in Chemistry - from KWC to PhD

Posted in Alumni News

I was not that academically minded in the beginning. I rarely read books and did not have an interest in school other than using this time for sport! However, learning about chemistry really got my mind ticking.

At school, chemistry was such a bizarre subject where alien-like mechanisms led the way into understanding how life worked in all its complexity – from key biological functions such as vision to even understanding how the first stars ever came into existence.

Anything unusual and challenging appeals to me, so I decided to pursue chemistry!

I completed my integrated Masters degree at UCL and then dived into a PhD at UCL, which I am currently finishing. Normally in a PhD in Chemistry, one would commit to a specific field such as organic, inorganic or physical chemistry. I particularly enjoyed both organic and physical chemistry though they are on opposite sides of the spectrum: Organic chemistry has popular links to the TV show ‘Breaking Bad’ with the exceptions that no illicit materials are made, and chemistry is practised in a proper laboratory! It is basically a very sophisticated way of cooking which often smells awful; I deal with sulphurous compounds which aren’t pleasant to handle! Put simply, you have a target molecule to forge. This is achieved by logically breaking the molecule down to its simplest components by pen and paper. Next a synthetic route is proposed and finally the components are ‘cooked’ up to make the desired compound. In this logical manner, one could make any organic molecule!

A retrosynthetic analysis of one of my target molecules that formed the basis of my first publication. Starting from the top-left, the molecule is eventually broken down into its simplest components (bottom right). The molecule is then synthesised.

Then you have physical chemistry, where scientists aim to understand the electronic structure of atoms and molecules as this ultimately governs their chemical properties. Physical chemists use various methods to interrogate the electronic structure of species, particularly using monochromatic light in the form of a laser which interacts with the molecule releasing photoelectrons. Collecting these photoelectrons gives rise to a spectrum which directly gives an insight to the electronic structure of the molecules.

There was a gap to fill between organic and physical chemistry since there is a necessity to understand the complex chemistry of molecules as this could lead them to having a host of applications. However, there are only a very few scientists who could synthesise them and have the know-how to interrogate their electronic structure.

Inside look of the laser set-up. A laser this powerful can instantly blind you!

My PhD involves understanding the photo-dynamics and the molecular origin to firefly bioluminescence. Bioluminescence is the emission of light from living organisms - a similar and more sophisticated reaction than that is exhibited in glow-sticks.

Of major interest to the scientific community is the bioluminescence that is exhibited in fireflies as they produce the brightest reaction in nature. Scientists have understood the mechanism of firefly bioluminescence and have applied this to create biomedical imaging technologies where you can track and image cellular events underneath the skin. For example, you can visualise cancer cells by observing the luminosity of the cancer cells over time. This is important in drug development studies, because one can measure the luminosity given off over time when the drug is administered to determine its effectiveness. A decrease in the luminosity shows that the drug is combatting the cancer cells.

Schematic of a bioluminescence imaging assay for detecting cancer cells: (a) Tumour-expressing cells are transfected with the luciferase gene; (b) Administration of the transfected tumour cells into the mouse; (c) Administration of the oxyluciferin precursor, luciferin ; (d) Light emission is detected by a high resolution detector and the image is resolved - In vivo imaging in mouse cancer models expressing firefly luciferase. No substrate (left image) and mice imaged with the luciferin precursor (right image).

Curiously the molecule that is responsible for firefly bioluminescence, oxyluciferin, remains elusive because it can transiently exist as three forms and today scientists do not know the molecular origin to firefly bioluminescence. Consequently, it is my role to synthesise the elusive oxyluciferin species through organic chemistry and then interrogate its electronic structure using laser spectroscopy.

I successfully synthesised the oxyluciferin species and recorded spectra of it using photoelectron spectroscopy. Then I developed a new method to disentangle the transient species in a single spectrum which has enabled me to separate out the dynamics exhibited by each species. From what was a ‘complete mess’ has now turned into something that is clear. Using my methodology, I have been able to remodel spectra in accurate detail leading to a new way to disentangling complex spectrum arising from multiple species.

During my PhD, I have had opportunities to present my work at conferences. Sometimes they can be quite daunting as I am presenting work to pioneers in the field who may ask challenging questions during the Q&A session after the talk. Therefore, as a rule it is always best to be prepared as you cannot get away from making anything up! Recently, I presented my work at a conference in Lipari (a beautiful Sicilian island), which was the first UK-Italian joint meeting on Photochemistry, organized by the Photophysics and Photochemistry Group of the RSC (PPG) and the Gruppo Italiano di Fotochimica (GIF). This included three plenary lectures, six keynote lectures from leading scientists in the field, followed by oral presentations from 35 scientists including me – the hybrid African-Indian-British-Manx-raised representative!

Most of the scientists presenting their work were post-doctoral students whilst I was one of few PhD students speaking so this was an incredible opportunity for me to showcase my latest research. Talks included the latest work on molecular motors, new/intriguing metal complexes that are used as luminescent probes, solar cells and artificial systems mimicking photosynthesis; a few of these ideas have even spun out into businesses! This was cutting edge stuff!

My work was highly received by the photochemistry community and to my surprise I was awarded the prize for the best oral presentation! Achieving this award has been the culmination of lots of creative thinking, hard work, failure, patience and luck as the key ingredient.

It is thanks to KWC for inspiring me to do chemistry in the first place. I particularly would like to say thank you to Mrs Ballantyne, Dr Morgans, Mr Humphreys-Jones and Dr Holder for guiding me in Chemistry and Physics from the very beginning. What I have realised over my time is that it is crucial to know your basics in any subject, otherwise life would be a struggle! If I could share any advice to current KWC students, it would be to make sure you UNDERSTAND the facts and not just memorise them!

Anand Patel (D, 2007-2012)