Petro-Can award recipient bides his time
Written By: Dave Alexander
2003-04-28Nobody becomes a respected academic simply by waiting around for the prestige to be awarded by virtue of seniority. Hard work earns respect.
The Petro-Canada Young Innovator Awards are designed to do just that--recognize outstanding young researchers. The honours, which include funding for research, go to full-time faculty members in Business, Engineering, and Science, who are no more than eight years past completing their doctorate, preferably working in “areas directly related to Petro-Canada’s business.” This year’s awards, presented today during a formal ceremony, were given to one innovator in each of the three aforementioned faculties. Stan Li from the School of Business, Biao Huang in Chemical and materials engineering, and Dennis Hall in chemistry. (Profiles of the three begin on ExpressNews today.)
University of Alberta Chemistry professor Dr. Dennis Hall knows a thing or two about being patient. The Petro-Canada Young Innovator Award recipient applies the virtue to both his research and his favourite hobby.
“Aside from chemistry, one of my passions is wine,” he said. “I’ve started a cellar and I age wine. It requires patience.” He recently built the cellar in the corner of his basement so his bottles can mature in a cool, humid place. It’s one of the few things Hall has time for outside of his work in the Chemistry Department, where he puts in long days, supplemented by take-home work.
“I know some of my colleagues, I should not mention names, could not keep a bottle of wine in their basement for five years,” he jokes. “They would drink it within days. You have to resist the temptation.”
Hall also relies on that patience in his field of combinatorial chemistry. It’s a specialization that develops new strategies and methods to synthesize and analyse a large number of compounds rapidly. Through it, Hall has been trying to help in the fight against diabetes.
Specifically, his lab has created libraries, collections of molecules, of thousands of polyboronic acids, which will be used to discover molecules capable of binding to sugar and accurately measuring glucose concentrations under physiological conditions. It’s hoped that the eventual outcome will be some sort of an insulin-pump implant that could monitor and regulate blood sugar levels without requiring daily blood tests and injections for diabetics.
“We’re using combinatorial chemistry because it’s difficult to predict which molecule will be the perfect one,” he explained. Synthetic molecules that bind to sugars in water are extremely rare, so Hall and his lab team have been diligently cataloging the possibilities for further research.
“We're also interested in polyamines. Synthetic polyamines could be used as anti-cancer agents, they could be used as gene delivery agents, they have multiple applications," he said. “Nature only makes three or four polyamines, but one of my graduate students made a library of 5,000 different ones in three weeks. That gives you an idea of how combinatorial chemistry can be powerful.”
When Hall first started on his doctorate, his field didn’t really even exist yet. After earning his PhD in Organic Chemistry from the Université de Sherbrooke, he did his post-doctoral work at the University of California, Berkeley, where he found his niche in a fresh area of study.
“In Berkeley, I prepared for a faculty position, but I didn't want to initiate a research program that would be a continuation of my PhD. I really wanted to do something new,” he said. “At that time, in 1995, the really hot new thing in chemistry was combinatorial chemistry.”
The risk paid off. After five years at the U of A an at the age of 35, one of his inventions, a chemical used in handling boronic acids, has been commercialized. He has been appointed to the editorial advisory board for the Journal of Combinatorial Chemistry, published by the American Chemical Society. And now he has earned the Petro-Canada Young Innovator Award.
Synthetic chemistry has also given Hall the hands-on involvement that he craves while doing research.
“There are really two type of sciences: those where you transform matter, and those where you observe matter. I really like the idea of transforming matter, where you make new compounds with tailored properties.”
Hall says it was tough for him to accept that he wouldn’t be involved in the hands-on lab work once he had his own group of about a dozen graduate students and postdoctoral assistants to supervise and guide. “The days that I would not do lab work, I felt that I had accomplished nothing.”
He got over it, though, and learned to rely on his team.
“I’m really fortunate. I have very good graduate students. They are as good as I am in the lab. Actually--but don't tell them this--they’re probably better than me. I must be very rusty. I’m sure if I were to do experiments I would probably drop flasks,” he laughs.
Hall doesn’t mind if his students make a few slip-ups though, because the way he sees it, the patience with which he conducts his research must be applied to his students in order for them to develop properly.
“You have to accept that scientific productivity may not be as high as you want because your students have to make mistakes to learn. .... For example, it’s faster for me to write a paper than for any of my graduate students to do it, but they have to learn these things, and it can be time consuming.”
Luckily, Hall has no problem at all putting in the hours. He says if he’s not at work or helping his wife raise their two young daughters, he’s examining a PhD thesis or reviewing a grant application. Even when he intends to do some recreational reading he admits he always manages to find a chemistry paper to bury himself in.
So it makes perfect sense for a guy like Hall to have a low-maintenance hobby requiring plenty of patience. With his schedule it’s a snap to resist uncorking a bottle of wine before its time.
“If you age wine, you have to give it time,” he muses. “It’s kind of like training a graduate student. If you provide the right conditions to let graduate students mature for five years, they will reach their maximum potential."
This article originally appeared in Express News.