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Interview: The secret life of molecules
18 April 2008
Christer Aakeröy talks to Freya Mearns about the language of molecules and molecular dating
|Christer Aakeröy is a professor of chemistry at Kansas State University. His research interests focus on crystal engineering, both the fundamentals and its application in the pharmaceutical industry. He is the CrystEngComm regional associate editor for the Americas.|
You started off in meat packing and then became a teacher. What inspired you to become a scientist?
I had a chemistry box set when I was about 12 years old. After an incident with a Bunsen burner that landed me in hospital, I was placed under a chemistry embargo and I didn't think much about it for a long time. I was more interested in philosophy and psychology. My dream was to become a psychiatrist. I had no intention of becoming a scientist because it was not what I was interested in or good at.
I did not make it into psychiatry school because they only had a few places. I decided to go and do some 'real' work instead and became a meat packer. In Sweden at that time you could add points to your grade average if you had a 'proper' job. I was going to work to get the necessary grade to get into university to do psychiatry but it never materialised. I decided to do the second best thing, which was to be a teacher. I did a degree in chemistry, mathematics and biology and started teaching after that.
I visited the University of Sussex for six months as part of an exchange program. Afterwards, I went back to Sweden and continued teaching when Professor Seddon, who is now at Belfast, called me up and asked if I wanted to do a PhD. I honestly had no idea what 'PhD' meant but since I had nothing planned for the weekend I went over and that was that.
Why did you decide to specialise in crystal engineering?
- Christer Aakeröy
What projects are you working on at the moment?
From my perspective, crystal engineering and supramolecular chemistry are still at a very fundamental level. Intermolecular interactions are very complex and subtle and we have only just begun to understand why certain molecules like each other and why others do not. More importantly, we need to learn more about how we can engineer properties based upon the structure of molecular aggregates.
The applications we are looking at right now relate primarily to the pharmaceutical industry. We try to change physical properties such as solubility, dissolution rate, thermal stability and hygroscopicity of bulk materials. We have also worked on porous materials that we then use for the selective capture of various toxic guests.
However, I unashamedly like the fundamental aspects of our research. How do molecules really find suitable partners and how do they get together? I guess it is a little bit like observing and understanding molecular dating. We then try to develop synthetic protocols for assembling discrete molecules into larger aggregates with precise arrangements and stoichiometries.
You're involved with the Terry C. Johnson Center for Basic Cancer Research at Kansas State University as part of your research. Could you tell me about this collaboration?
Pharmaceutical companies make a large number of molecules on a daily basis. However, only a tiny fraction of those compounds actually make it out onto the market because many of them lack the necessary physical properties such as desired solubility or thermal stability, or they're difficult to process.
We are looking at improving the solubility of some potentially potent anticancer compounds. Their solubility is so poor that currently we cannot use them for anything because their bio-availability is just too low.
We also try to make molecular hosts - molecular-sized capsules that will allow us to encapsulate drugs. These capsules would be, in a sense, remote-controlled allowing us to open them up when they get to the target. We hope to manipulate the capsule from the outside using light or pH, and to functionalise the outside of the capsule so that it recognises a particular organ or cell. That would be the ultimate delivery vehicle but we are a long way from that goal.
The financial support that we received from the Center has allowed us to generate some very useful preliminary data that is now helping to move some of our research program from fundamental to applied scientific problems.
You work both in academia and with industry and you have been fortunate enough to work in many different places around the world. Is this flexibility a real bonus to working in science?
- Christer Aakeröy
What is the secret to being a successful scientist?
You have to be curious and completely open-minded. Natural curiosity about how things work, and why events take place in certain ways, is the starting point for any scientific venture. Much of the rest is hypothesis-driven experiments and careful methodology. In addition, there is really no substitute for hard work.
What scientific discovery would you like to have been responsible for?
Realising that our sun is actually not the centre of the universe. We are just a small part of the big picture!
If you weren't a scientist, what would you do?
I would probably be a teacher. That's what I started out as and it is still one of the aspects of my current position that I derive an enormous amount of pleasure from.
Christer Aakeroy's research page
at Kansas State University
External links will open in a new browser window
Attempted assembly of discrete coordination complexes into 1-D chains using halogen bonding or halogenhalogen interactions
Christer B. Aakeröy, Nate Schultheiss, John Desper and Curtis Moore, CrystEngComm, 2007, 9, 421
Constructing, deconstructing, and reconstructing ternary supermolecules
Christer B. Aakeröy, John Desper and Michelle M. Smith, Chem. Commun., 2007, 3936
How robust is the hydrogen-bonded amide ladder motif?
Christer B. Aakeröy, Benjamin M. T. Scott and John Desper, New J. Chem., 2007, 31, 2044
Also of interest
Is polymorphism crystal clear? Nicola Nugent asks Ashwini Nangia.
Crystals could be engineered with precisely tailored properties.