Dr Paul McGonigal MRSC
Winner: 2022 Harrison-Meldola Memorial Prize
For innovative studies of dynamic processes in organic functional materials.
Celebrate Dr Paul McGonigal
Materials made from organic molecules are extremely attractive for a gamut of applications spanning electronics, surface science and catalysis. The near-limitless diversity of organic structures brings with it opportunities, but it also brings challenges linked to their reactivity and inherent dynamics.
Dr McGonigal’s team looks at dynamic materials containing chemical bonds that can be made, broken, or rotated rapidly and reversibly. By understanding and controlling these atomic-scale movements, they influence their properties, such as how they emit light or how they resist wear and tear.
Paul McGonigal is Associate Professor and an EPSRC Early Career Fellow at Durham University where his group develops functional organic materials that take advantage of unusual interactions and reactivity of dynamic small-molecule motifs. His recent investigations have focused on the supramolecular chemistry of shapeshifting molecules, aromatic cations, aggregation-induced emitters, and low-friction surface assemblies. His awards include a US–UK Fulbright Scholarship (2012) and the Molecules Young Investigator Award (2018). He is a committee member of the Royal Society of Chemistry’s Macrocyclic and Supramolecular Chemistry interest group and Associate Editor of the journal Aggregate.
Before joining Durham University, Paul obtained his undergraduate and PhD degrees from the University of Edinburgh, completing his PhD thesis under the supervision of Professor David Leigh on the topic of ‘The Active Metal Template Synthesis of Rotaxanes, Catenanes, and Knots’. He undertook postdoctoral research in gold catalysis with Professor Antonio Echavarren at The Institute of Chemical Research of Catalonia (ICIQ), Spain, before developing molecular machines as a US–UK Fulbright Scholar in the group of Professor Fraser Stoddart at Northwestern University, USA.
How did you first become interested in chemistry?
I always enjoyed science at school, but it wasn’t until I had hands-on experience of wet chemistry that I knew I wanted to be a chemist. My first real taste of it was an experiment to extract cinnamaldehyde from cinnamon bark. After that, I was hooked!
What motivates you?
The thing that keeps me coming back for more are those experiments where something unexpected happens and we have a new problem to solve.
Can you tell us about a scientific development on the horizon that you are excited about?
One of the key research areas for my group involves developing the chemistry of ‘shapeshifting molecules’ – stable molecular species that rapidly and reversibly rearrange between thousands of distinct shapes. My group have started to investigate their dynamic chirality and their uses in supramolecular and materials chemistry. There are also some other researchers doing some beautiful chemistry with these compounds, so I’m hoping to see some exciting developments coming in the future.
What has been a highlight for you (either personally or in your career)?
A lucky by-product of my postdoctoral research positions was having the chance to travel internationally and live in two fantastic (and very different) cities – Tarragona, Catalonia and Chicago, Illinois.