A scientist who aims to make everyday chemical reactions ‘greener’ so that they impact less on the environment has received recognition from the Royal Society of Chemistry (RSC) for the most meritorious and promising original investigations in chemistry.
Dr Elaine O’Reilly, an expert in biocatalysis in the School of Chemistry, has received the RSC’s 2017 Harrison-Meldola Memorial Prize for her published research and the originality and impact of this work.
Dr O’Reilly said: “I feel very honoured to receive this prestigious award from the Royal Society of Chemistry. Many of the previous winners are scientists that I hold in extremely high regard and it is a privilege to have my name included in this list of high-quality researchers. It’s a wonderful feeling to have your research and hard work acknowledged in this way and I hope we can continue to make a valuable impact going forward.”
Chemistry - it wasn’t love at first sight
When Dr O’Reilly started her BSc at University College Dublin (UCD) she intended to eventually focus on genetics – a topic that had interested her from a young age.
She said: “I didn’t take chemistry for my Leaving Certificate – the A-Level equivalent in Ireland - so I found it incredibly challenging during my first year at University. It wasn’t love at first sight by any means but I did love the welcoming nature of the Chemistry Department at UCD and eventually decided to stay on to complete my PhD in synthetic chemistry.”
After a move to Manchester, Dr O’Reilly became intrigued with the idea of mimicking Darwinian Evolution and Natural Selection in order to develop new catalysts.
Dr O’Reilly said: “Enzymes have evolved over hundreds of millions of years to perform essential chemistry in microorganisms, plantsand mammals – how wonderful that modern science allows us to shorten this evolutionary process to just weeks.”
Dr O’Reilly’s research group was established just over three years ago. It focusses on developing enzymes for applications in organic chemistry. The ultimate goal is that these natural catalysts will enable the development of sustainable and environmentally benign routes to completely new classes of pharmaceutical drugs, which are not accessible using more traditional chemical catalysis.
I want to make a positive impact on people’s lives
Dr O’Reilly said: “We try to avoid the use of toxic chemical catalysts and instead use Nature’s own catalysts, enzymes, to synthesise important chemicals and pharmaceuticals. These biocatalysts allow us to perform chemistry that is not possible using more traditional chemical approaches and paves the way for the development of entirely new pharmaceutical drugs. The most important thing for me is that my research addresses a real challenge and has the potential to have a really positive impact on people’s lives.”
Dr Robert Parker, chief executive of the Royal Society of Chemistry said: “It is an honour to celebrate the innovation and expertise of our community through our prizes and awards. We know that chemistry can be a powerful force for good, and quality research and communication of that research are more important than ever before. Our charitable mission is to advance excellence in the chemical sciences, and we are proud to celebrate our inspiring and influential winners, who share that mission.”
Illustrious list of prize winners
An illustrious list of 50 previous winners of the Royal Society of Chemistry’s awards have gone on to win Nobel Prizes for their pioneering work, including all of the 2016 chemistry winners, Jean-Pierre Sauvage, Fraser Stoddart and Ben Feringa.
Professor Jonathan Hirst, Head of the School of Chemistry, said: “It is only just over two years ago since we were lucky enough to recruit Dr O’Reilly to the University of Nottingham, and it is particularly pleasing to see her science flourish so quickly and so strongly. I am delighted that the excellence of Elaine’s research has been recognized by the Royal Society of Chemistry.”
Dr O’Reilly receives £5000, a medal and a certificate.
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Notes to editors: The University of Nottingham has 43,000 students and is ‘the nearest Britain has to a truly global university, with a “distinct” approach to internationalisation, which rests on those full-scale campuses in China and Malaysia, as well as a large presence in its home city.’ (Times Good University Guide 2016). It is also one of the most popular universities in the UK among graduate employers and was named University of the Year for Graduate Employment in the 2017 The Times and The Sunday Times Good University Guide. It is ranked in the world’s top 75 by the QS World University Rankings 2015/16, and 8th in the UK for research power according to the Research Excellence Framework 2014. It has been voted the world’s greenest campus for four years running, according to Greenmetrics Ranking of World Universities.
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