Douglas Stephan is a professor of chemistry at the University of Toronto, and in 2013 was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society. He has served on the Editorial Board of Philosophical Transactions A since 2014, and here he talks to us about his career.
Tell us a bit about your research.
A catalyst is a molecule that mediates a chemical reaction without being consumed and thus need only be present in very low concentrations. Developing catalysts involves making new molecules that are specifically designed to be reactive and thus capable of enabling the synthesis of desirable molecular products, such as pharmaceuticals, materials or commodity chemicals. In general, there are a large number of approaches under study to these ends, the vast majority of which involve the use of transition metal complexes. What makes our approach unusual is that we have focused on main group or non-metal catalysts. In these efforts we have made some dramatic advances. Perhaps most impactful has been the discovery of main group systems capable of mediating the addition of hydrogen to organic unsaturated molecules.
Why is this important?
For the past 100 years the addition of hydrogen to unsaturated organic molecules has been mediated by metal-based catalysts. Indeed it was chemical dogma that metals were required to “activate” hydrogen for reaction. Our discovery of “frustrated Lewis pairs” demonstrate that this is not the case. Indeed, one can use the combination of simple non-metallic molecules to prompt reactions of hydrogen. This discovery has also led to the development of a myriad of strategies to activate other important small molecules such as olefins, acetylenes and CO2.
Why did you become a chemist?
Chemical research requires a thorough understanding of science and thus a logical and scientific approach. At the same time, creativity and curiosity play important roles in the development of new and innovative synthetic strategies. Thus for me, chemistry is a highly satisfying blend of science and creativity.
Who or what has been the biggest influence on your career?
I have had the luxury of working with a series of young, intelligent and highly motivated people. While my role has been to act mentor and scientific cheerleader to these highly skilled undergraduates, graduate students and postdoctoral fellows, these co-workers have been and continue to be a constant source of inspiration for me.
What do you like to do when you’re not working?
I am a runner and an occasional golfer. My wife and I enjoy theatre, good food and wine, time with friends and being at the “cottage” on Lake Huron.