Westlake News LAB SHOW

Chair Professor Li DENG receives Prestigious Organic Chemistry Award

Kaina LI
02, 2019

Email: fengyi@westlake.edu.cn
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The American Chemical Society has awarded chair professor Li DENG the Arthur C. Cope Scholar Award for 2020, a widely recognized international honor in the broad field of organic chemistry.


Established in 1986, the Arthur C. Cope Scholar Award annually awards 10 scholars in three categories to recognize their original contributions to the field of organic chemistry. Past recipients include Nobel Prize winners K. Barry Sharpless, Robert H. Grubbs, Ryoji Noyori, J. Fraser Stoddart, and Ben Feringa.


The award letter from American Chemical Society President Bonnie Charpentier congratulates Deng’s seminal contributions to the development of weak-bonding asymmetric catalysis. “Deng is one of the pioneers and a leader who pushes the boundaries in the field of organocatalysis,” said Professor Kuiling DING, a prominent organic chemist and member of the Chinese Academy of Sciences. “Since 2000, we have seen organocatalysis as a rapidly surging field, and it remains a vital and dynamic research area.

Professor Li DENG

Well-deserved award

To understand the significance of weak-bonding catalysis, we interviewed Dr. Jisheng LUO, a research associate in Deng’s laboratories.


Jisheng stated, “Catalysts hold the magic ability to dramatically accelerate chemical reactions, thereby greatly enhancing our ability to create new functional molecules such as anti-cancer drugs. Furthermore, catalysts enable the large-scale production of valuable molecules at low cost while minimizing undesirable environmental impact.


Conventional synthetic catalysts are metal complexes that accelerate the chemical reactions by strong bonding catalysis,” he said. “On the other hand, the most powerful catalysts, enzymes, are created by nature through billions of years of evolution. Enzymes mediate numerous reactions in human bodies, including those convert food into nutrients and produce energy in cells.”


“Though so powerful in facilitating complex reactions in a fast yet precise manner in order to meet the demand of our bodies, enzymes exercise their functions by weak-bonding-catalysis,” said Luo.


Deng’s team was on a quest to find a natural and efficient catalyst. In 2000, they found a derivative from cinchona alkaloids, a family of metal-free natural products could promote an important organic reaction efficiently. This breakthrough opened a new pathway for catalyst discovery and development.


By imitating how enzymes mediate reactions by weak-bonding co-operative catalysis, Deng’s team successfully developed a series of new catalysts that became popular for their use by synthetic organic chemists around the world. In recent years, Deng’s team reported a series of new catalysts that worked with an efficiency approaching that of enzymes.


“Professor Deng made several original contributions that improve the efficiency of organocatalysts by orders of magnitude,” said Ding. “His studies brought this field of research to a new level.”


So how can we apply Deng’s research?


No simple answer to this question said Luo, as the development of basic academic research, can often trigger “unimaginable” chain reactions. The impact of this research affects various fields. In the pharmaceutical industry, weak-bonding catalysis helps to accelerate the drug discovery process and keep the cost of medicine production low. When applied to chemical manufacturing, it reduces pollution.


Deng’s catalysts have found applications in industries. Many of his catalysts have been licensed to companies for further development.


The master who once was a straggler

Professor Deng and his team

Professor Deng’s laboratory is located on the sixth floor of the Buidling Four on the Yunqi campus of Westlake University. In these modern laboratories with sophisticated instruments, Deng has recruited a team of graduate students, postdoctoral fellows and senior researchers.


Deng graduated from Tsinghua University in 1987, then went to the US to pursue his graduate studies. He received his Ph.D. from Harvard University and stayed on for post-doctoral research. In 1998, Deng joined Brandeis University as an assistant professor and rose through the ranks to become the inaugural Orrie Friedman Distinguished Professor in 2005. Later, he also served as the chair of the Chemistry Department.


In January 2018, Deng almost decided to join a well-known university in Hong Kong. However, on a visit to Hangzhou, Westlake University attracted his attention. Currently, Deng serves as the chair professor of chemistry at Westlake University, where he also serves as the chairperson of the academic committee and the executive dean of the School of Science.


This impressive resume doesn’t tell the whole story, as this accomplished academic once was a student lost his way.


As an undergraduate student at Tsinghua, Deng was so obsessed with Kung Fu novels that he skipped many classes, causing his academic performance to suffer.  Deng found his calling when working on research related to cures for cancer and AIDS alongside his mentor, Eric Jacobsen. In his words, he realized that “a small potato like me could actually make a difference. And the wonderful part is that we get to make the world better by uncovering new knowledge.”


Outside of his academic activities, Deng keeps his life simple. One thing he enjoys is to take his daughter to her violin classes, and as a classical music enthusiasts, Deng is happy to stay and enjoy the class himself. He finds a strong connection with the music of Schubert and Bach and collects records of various performances. Deng sees no boundaries between science and art: “You never know when or how inspiration will come. What we can do is to experience the world to the fullest, and elevate ourselves along the way.


His favorite place is still in the lab, where he finds inspiration and solves problems. In his laboratories with all kinds of instruments, what Deng cares about most are the students. “The level of your lab is measured by how many innovative minds coming out of it,” he says.


Deng tells his students that “doing research is not like shell picking on the beach—you can’t just pick up whatever comes your way. We must pursue original research.  It is difficult, but that’s what basic research is all about.” Deng encourages his students to speak up and ask questions: “You have to see the problem where no one else sees it. This is as important as solving the problem.”


It takes more than intelligence to be innovative—innovation also emerges from dreams and passion. You might run into Professor Deng on a bus or in a music hall. Please approach him and say hi, we guarantee you a meaningful conversation about music or life itself.