Remaking the molecular world

24 July 2019

Dr Sam Chan (University of Oxford Croucher Scholarship 2015) is working to increase our knowledge of the world around us, one molecule at a time.

Chan was born and raised in Hong Kong, but an exchange semester at Oxford University inspired him to move abroad. After finishing his undergraduate studies at the University of Hong Kong in 2015, Chan returned to Oxford on a more permanent basis.

The young scientist completed his doctoral studies on oxonium ions relevant to natural product biosynthesis under the guidance of Dr Jonathan Burton at Oxford. The recent graduate is now a postdoctoral researcher at his British alma mater.

According to Chan, his current research is like solving a crossword puzzle. “However, instead of trying to work out all the words from scratch, I am given all but one or two words to figure out,” he explained. “These missing words are very unusual, so we must deeply research their origins to understand their meaning and decide if they fit in the puzzle.”

His puzzle focuses on elements on the right-hand side of the periodic table. These form molecules with strong carbon-carbon bonds, which owe their strength to carbon’s unique atomic structure.

Surprisingly, a life of science did not initially appeal to Chan, who describes himself as “totally inept at maths and memorisation”. He seriously considered studying humanities but was soon swayed by a deep sense of curiosity in the natural world. After high school, Chan decided to turn his passion into a career path.

Nowadays, Chan is a fixture at the lab, and you can find him there from 9am to 9pm daily. “This is by no means the established work schedule [at Oxford],” said Chan. “I’m just very keen to be creating molecules!”

In the lab, making molecules is a daily routine. “Bringing an idea to life, from the drawing board, and then into the flask, and ultimately as a spotless spectrum or even as a crystal structure is a very fulfilling process.” said Chan. In fact, it is sometimes easier to create a new molecule than it is to mimic a natural one.

“When we try to make molecules that can be found in nature, we tend to select structurally complex targets,” said Chan. For him, these difficult molecules present a greater challenge –and offer a greater reward.

Natural-forming molecules are often biosynthesised with enzymes that orient the molecular structure in unique ways. “Without the help of such biological machinery, we have to wrestle with the issue of performing selective chemical reactions to arrive at our target,” he explained.

Understanding how to replicate these complex structures without the use of natural enzymes will allow researchers to create new compounds with a range of potential uses. Building on his doctoral research, Chan’s current work may one day be used by pharmaceutical companies to develop new drug therapies for patients.

For the moment, though, he does not concern himself with any long-term applications outside the lab. Chan already has his hands full. His molecules may be small, but their research potential is massive.

Dr Sam Chan undertook his Bachelor of Science at the University of Hong Kong, where he worked on intramolecular (4+3) cycloaddition of aziridinyl enolsilanes for his final year project with Professor Pauline Chiu. In 2013, he became a visiting student reading Chemistry at Corpus Christi College, Oxford. After completing his undergraduate degree in 2015, he started his doctoral studies in the Burton group at Oxford University the same year. He is now a postdoctoral researcher at Oxford. Chan received a University of Oxford Croucher Scholarship in 2015.

To view Chan's Croucher profile, please click here.