This year's winner of the Dream Chemistry Award competition is organic chemist Mark Levin with his vision for revolutionizing the synthesis of functional molecules
The Dream Chemistry Award, a unique competition that does not count scientific articles in prestigious journals or affiliations with renowned universities, knows its winner for this year. Its contestants are young scientists within seven years of having received their doctorate. To be true to its name, it rewards ideas so novel that their realization is akin to fulfilling a bold human dream. The 2023 award has been given to Mark Levin from the University of Chicago, whose aim is to simplify the design of pharmaceutically active substances.
Co-organized by the Institute of Organic Chemistry and Biochemistry of the Czech Academy of Sciences and the Institute of Physical Chemistry of the Polish Academy of Sciences, the Dream Chemistry Award reaches out to researchers that are at the beginning of their careers and are trying to solve fundamental problems in chemistry or related fields. To achieve this goal, they propose innovative solutions to problems with a global impact. It is the general benefit that can come from these projects which is crucial for success in this competition.
This year, the challenge was tackled the best by Dr Mark Levin with his dream about the targeted editing of the skeletons of aromatic molecules. His vision is that molecular designers will be better able to synthesize new functional molecules directly, preferably avoiding dead ends. This would give the world substances with properties that are perfectly suited to specific roles, which is especially important for modern medicinal chemistry. The reason is that this field is currently facing a multitude of problems, for example concerning the effectiveness of medicines.
‘It is a real breakthrough that can fundamentally transform the way new molecules are discovered, even though this will require a collaborative effort from many research groups around the world,’ says Mark Levin, adding that ‘It can revolutionize the science of synthesis.’
Contestants are nominated for the competition by their reputable senior colleagues from scientific institutions around the world. Young researchers that accept the nomination and prepare a competition submission get evaluated by an international scientific committee. One of its members as well as organizer of the Czech branch of the competition, Prof. Pavel Jungwirth from IOCB Prague, describes: ‘This year's Dream Chemistry Award event presented five scientifically strong finalists, and the jury and audience heard five great lectures. It is difficult to choose a winner from among such brilliant candidates, but this is what the jury is for.’
‘I enjoyed all the lectures. They were of really high quality,’ agrees the representative of the Polish side, Prof. Robert Hołyst, adding: ‘These people are exceptional, and it is a great honour to be part of such a competition. Although, come to think of it, for us this is not a mere competition; we are talking about the Dream Chemistry Award – a festival of science.’
Also visiting Prague this year are young recipients of the award from previous years: Karl Brozek, Jessica Kramer and Yujia Qing, who shone in the competition four years ago. Since then, the postdoctoral researcher and then youngest finalist has become an associate professor in organic chemistry at Oxford (UK) and leader of her own research group. How did her success in the Dream Chemistry Award help her? Yujia answers: ‘Receiving this award in the field of chemical biology helped me start my own research programme. I was particularly inspired by the scientific discussion that accompanied the competition. I received a lot of feedback. I also really appreciate the support given by the Dream Chemistry Award’s committee. A letter of recommendation from one of its members undoubtedly helped me land my current faculty position.’
She is not giving up on her dream of sequencing all life, molecule by molecule, with which she impressed the evaluators in 2019, although she admits that she will have to take a different path than she originally envisaged. ‘I will celebrate every step forward and stay open to all the surprises that science can bring to me’, Yujia Qing looks to the future.
The main accolade, the Dream Chemistry Award, comes with an original glass statuette and a prize of €10,000. The remaining finalists have received the TOP 5 Prize and a financial reward of €1,000. The top five include: Aisha Bismillah from the University of York in the UK (accelerating the development of shape-shifting molecules and their use in medicine), Moran Frenkel-Pinter from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem (studying primordial peptides as mixtures to find connections between today's biochemistry and the chemical principles from prebiotic times that led to the origin of life on Earth), Francesca Grisoni from the Eindhoven University of Technology (revolutionizing the next generation of artificial intelligence based on principles of chemical intuition) and Barak Hirshberg from Tel Aviv University (designing molecular crystals with customized properties using machine learning algorithms).
The Dream Chemistry Award was founded ten years ago by Prof. Robert Hołyst from the Institute of Physical Chemistry of the Polish Academy of Sciences in Warsaw (IChF PAS). In 2017, the Institute of Organic Chemistry and Biochemistry of the Czech Academy of Sciences (IOCB Prague) joined as the second organizing institution, and since then the competition has been held annually, alternating between Prague and Warsaw. The award is financially supported by the IOCB Tech Foundation.