Emory Report
February 2, 2009
Volume 61, Number 18



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February 2
, 2009
Chemist wins NSF award for interactive teaching and research

By Carol Clark

The National Science Foundation recently awarded a CAREER development grant to Simon Blakey, assistant professor of organic chemistry. The grant provides Blakey $550,000 over five years for his work to improve processes for both drug discovery and production, and for his commitment to interactive teaching methods.

Blakey is experimenting with new ways to form carbon-nitrogen bonds. “Out of the 50 top-selling drugs, 47 of them contain carbon-nitrogen bonds, making these bonds immensely important to medicine,” he says.

During the past year, his lab has demonstrated the potential of using a rhodium catalyst to simultaneously form three bonds: for carbon-nitrogen, carbon-oxygen and carbon-carbon. “Eliminating steps in chemical processes can provide streamlined approaches to make existing drugs and to create new ones,” Blakey says. “We are putting together a complex framework for drug discovery, to allow for efficient experimentation with variations.”

The NSF CAREER awards go to investigators who are working on transformative ideas in their fields, while also striving to educate the next generation of scientists.

When he teaches sophomore chemistry, Blakey sees himself more as a guide than a lecturer. He briefly explains a concept to his students, gives them a problem, and then breaks them into groups to solve it.

“We are linking the way we do chemistry in the research lab with the classroom, by getting the class to come up with the answers themselves,” he says. “Students are more likely to understand the chemistry when they find the solution. They also better understand the mistakes that are commonly made, when they make one themselves.”

In addition to the NSF award, Blakey’s lab recently received seed funding to investigate the anti-malarial properties of a molecule derived from a plant in Madagascar. Several years ago, scientists isolated the molecule from the bark of the plant, which is boiled and used by traditional healers to treat malaria in Madagascar.

“It’s an exciting molecule, but the plant only makes it in small quantities,” says Blakey, who wants to learn how and why it protects against malaria.