Professor Mark Lautens of the Department of Chemistry is the 2016 recipient of the prestigious Faculty Award for combining intriguing research, innovative teaching methods and creative service to the University,
With a limited budget for hosting international guest lecturers, the Department of Chemistry nevertheless still welcomes many visiting scholars on a regular basis through a program launched in 1990 by Professor Lautens, who is also a University Professor and the J. Bryan Jones Distinguished Professor. What’s his secret? Outsourcing the costs. “I had the idea to contact pharmaceutical companies and ask them if they would be willing to give us unrestricted funds to bring over speakers,” he says. “We typically name the lecture after the company, and tailor our selection (e.g. young emerging star, senior leader, multidisciplinary, etc). Our students get to hear the best research from around the world!”
The named lectureships are just one example of Professor Lautens’ creativity in fundraising, and showcase one of his key priorities – ensuring a top-quality experience for students. For example, he was also a principal consultant during the building of the state-of-the-art Davenport Laboratories and was instrumental in landing a $5.4 million CFI grant that allowed the department to buy three new NMR spectrometers. Both projects have made the University far more attractive to young scholars interested in pursuing chemistry. He has also raised funds for three graduate scholarships and has served on dozens of administrative positions since joining the University of Toronto in 1987.
Beyond these activities Professor Lautens also contributes to the department’s international reputation through his own groundbreaking research. As an organic chemist, he finds ways to improve the process of making new medicinal agents. By inventing new molecules and chemical reactions his work has helped industrial labs around the world reduce the environmental impact of producing medical drugs and agricultural chemicals.
“We try to improve efficiency,” he says. “So there’s less toxic waste, less time, less energy.” Just as biochemical reactions in living cells begin with all the “ingredients” present and carry on in a cascade one after another, so Professor Lautens and his co-workers attempt to combine many catalysts in one vessel and achieve many chemical steps all at once.
“Over the years,” he says, “we’ve made antidepressants, key components of cholesterol lowering agents, potential anticancer agents. And now, we’re trying to invent new chemical structures. It has a very practical impact on the way people think about making drugs.”
This work has been acknowledged by more than 30 grants and awards, including a Steacie Fellowship, a Chemical Institute of Canada Medal and a Killam Research Fellowship. Professor Lautens is also a fellow of the Royal Society of Chemistry and the Royal Society of Canada. He founded the journal Synfacts, has published widely and presents frequently at conferences around the world. In 2014, he was named an Officer of the Order of Canada.
Professor Lautens’ enthusiasm for the possibilities of chemistry shines through in the classroom, say his students. Most of all, they enjoy the way he finds time to provide personalized attention, even in large classes. His oral examinations, which replace the traditional mid-term exam for second-, third- and fourth-years, are legendary.
The idea came about, he says, because multiple choice exams sometimes only find out what a student doesn’t know. Instead, Professor Lautens asks students to pick a reaction that hasn’t been covered in lectures or labs and gives them 20 minutes to explain it to him. “You find out what they do know,” he says. “It’s personal, and it’s fun. And although it’s a lot of work – one time there were 82 students – it’s a lot better than sitting in a dark office grading assignment after assignment.”
Colleagues praise his mentoring of young researchers, especially his twice-weekly group problem-solving sessions. He has also coordinated the department’s grant application efforts, improving the success rates for young scholars. Over 25 years, he has trained more than 165 graduate students and postdoctoral fellows in his lab. The students he has mentored over the years now work in universities around the world and hold senior positions in the pharmaceutical industry.
His innovative named lectureships have been an integral part of this success. The visiting professors come and are impressed by Toronto students and faculty, he says. They then encourage their own students to apply for postdoctoral fellowships in Toronto, or even return themselves for sabbatical years. They also invite U of T faculty to give talks at their own universities.
“Toronto was always a super-strong chemistry department,” he says, “but it wasn’t as well known in organic synthesis. Now it is, because these visiting faculty came and met our dynamic group and had such a positive experience, they talked up Toronto.” The global research network is richer and deeper, and the University of Toronto is at the hub.
The Faculty Award honouring excellence in research and teaching is presented each year under the banner of the Awards of Excellence, a program recognizing the outstanding members of the University of Toronto community who have made rich and meaningful contributions to the University, their communities and to the world.
Alumni Relations within the Division of University Advancement is the steward of the Awards of Excellence program on behalf of the University of Toronto Alumni Association, and co-ordinates the vital contributions of other University stakeholder groups toward this prestigious award program.
Professor Mark Lautens and the other 2016 Awards of Excellence recipients will be honoured at a recognition event on May 4.