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Meng-Yue Cao: Exploring New Pathways for Organic Synthesis

08, 2023

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Meng-Yue Cao, a Ph.D. candidate at the Department of Chemistry of Westlake University, not only embraces challenges, but thrives on them. 

When she contemplated pursuing a doctoral degree at Westlake University four years ago, she was well aware that it would involve spending extended hours in the lab and enduring numerous trials and errors before making significant discoveries. Nevertheless, she chose to take the plunge.

Today, Meng-Yue Cao is among the most accomplished graduate students at Westlake. She was the recipient of the Westlake Presidential Award last year in recognition of her achievements in academic research. Her organic chemistry research has been published in several prestigious journals. 

“Of all the students I have come across all these years as a PI, she has impressed me the most with her eagerness to learn and her determination to succeed,” said her superior, Dr. Haihua LU, who is a Principal Investigator at the Department of Chemistry’s Laboratory of Natural Product Synthesis. 

Dr. LU went on to describe her as a strong-minded student. “No matter how challenging a research project is or how many times designed experiments give negative results, she always remains optimistic and tackles the challenges head-on, striving to make progress.”

(Meng-Yue was awarded the 2022 Westlake Presidential Award for her research. She was among the six outstanding students to receive this honor.) 

Meng-Yue's success story is not only impressive, but also serves as an inspiring example for women aspiring to pursue education and careers in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). As a new type of research university, Westlake actively supports women's participation in these fields through initiatives such as For Westlake Women in Science, empowering female researchers like Meng-Yue to make their mark in traditionally male-dominated areas of STEM.

Meng-Yue’s enthusiasm for organic chemistry research started in earnest when she began her master’s at Nanjing Tech University.

“I don’t know why, but I just loved being in the lab and designing and carrying out experiments to explore the complex world of organic compounds. Then I soon realized research is what I should do,” said she, recalling her master’s days.

At Westlake Department of Chemistry, Meng-Yue's research has been focused on the synthesis of diverse molecules inspired by natural products, with the goal of discovering new compounds that could have potential medicinal applications.

Last year, as the lead author, Meng-Yue, along with her collaborators, published a paper in the Journal of the American Chemical Society. In the paper, they proposed a new approach to synthesizing natural alkaloids daphenylline, one of a large class of natural products isolated from a genus of evergreen plants widely used in Chinese herbal medicine.

Unlike previously reported synthetic methods, Meng-Yue's team utilized a "hide-and-seek" strategy that involved uncovering hidden functionality in retrons and releasing it through chemical transformations.

This new strategy has the potential to greatly assist chemists in designing syntheses for their targets, with broader implications for the development of new drugs and other chemical compounds, explained her supervisor Dr. LU, who is also a co-author of the paper. 

“I was thrilled when my paper got published,” Meng-Yue said. “My team members and supervisor have been instrumental in supporting my research. I am grateful for their valuable input and encouragement.”

(Meng-Yue and her team members pose for a Chinese New Year-themed group photo.)

Meng-Yue is set to complete her Ph.D. this summer, and she is filled with gratitude for the support and mentorship she has received at Westlake University. She believes her four years here have been invaluable to her personal and professional growth. 

"As a student who values growth, I strongly believe in hard work," she said. "My time at Westlake has enabled me to broaden my horizons and explore new opportunities."

After her Ph.D., she plans to pursue postdoctoral studies with a focus on biocatalysis, chemoenzymatic synthesis, and synthetic biology. 

In the long run, Meng-Yue envisions herself engaging in interdisciplinary research to expand her understanding and discover her area of expertise. Whether she pursues a career in academia or industry, she remains determined to tackle challenges and create concrete solutions that will have a tangible impact.

"I want to utilize the knowledge and experiences gained from my time at Westlake University to assist those in need," she said.