Véronique Gouverneur appointed Waynflete Professor of Chemistry

In Oxford, organic chemistry has been championed by illustrious Waynflete Professors, faculty members, and their teams: a glorious past. So, I am thrilled to take on the Waynflete Professorship. I am convinced that our future is bright with the best of organic chemistry yet to come, and profound changes and unexpected advances ahead of us, most likely at the interface with other disciplines.

Education and chemistry have been an integral part of my life since day one. Growing up in Belgium, my mother was a primary school teacher (now retired), and my father was an engineer, chemist, novelist, and diplomat, working as an expert for UNESCO “with the mission to build peace through Education, the Sciences and Culture”. Such fortunate upbringing instilled in me a great love for academic work and travelling, with the additional blessing of growing up alongside my amazing brother (engineer, teacher) and sister (poet, teacher).

I studied for a Chemistry PhD with Léon Ghosez in asymmetric synthesis working on the Diels-Alder reaction. The US was an attractive destination for further education, so I did a postdoc at the Scripps Research Institute in La Jolla with Richard Lerner who, at the time, was turning antibodies into catalysts for all kind of (un)natural reactions, including cycloadditions. This was an exciting period, and it taught me an important lesson that I will not ignore anytime soon: you grow and learn by venturing well outside your comfort zone.

The shaping of my own research programme in the field of organic chemistry became a priority. When I took my first faculty position in Strasbourg with Charles Mioskowski, with the support of Jean-Marie Lehn, I had the good fortune to start a project on synthetic routes towards natural halogenated products and to be part of an industrial collaboration with an MSc student’s fluorine chemistry project. I knew literally nothing about fluorine, but the paucity of fluorinated natural products was certainly puzzling, and my growing interest in this peculiar element of the periodic table led me to study its chemistry.

In Oxford, I became quickly addicted to the world of “fluorine”, and its applications in medicine and drug discovery. At the time, fluorine chemistry was often perceived as a highly specialised, even dangerous field of research, that only experts should consider pursuing. Not anymore.

I viewed fluorine as ideal to build a career in a novel academic environment. The challenges associated with its reactivity are notorious, so innovation in reagent, reaction, and catalyst development must be part of the solution. Also, fluorinated molecules are represented in all aspects of our life – medicine, agriculture, polymers, refrigerants, materials – an attractive feature for fund raising and supporting a research programme. In retrospective, this was an intuitive decision that I shall never regret.

After more or less ten years in the job, I became conscientiously anxious about “scientific stagnation”. Some very fortunate circumstances guided me towards a new research direction: 18F-radiochemistry for applications in positron emission tomography (PET), a molecular imaging technology routinely used for clinical diagnosis and drug development. A lucky encounter with Jon Dilworth led to a discussion on the mechanism of action of positron-emitting 64Cu-labelled complexes for hypoxia imaging. At this point, having attended diligently most annual conferences in the field of fluorine chemistry, I became increasingly aware that 18F-radiochemistry could benefit from immediate innovation.

A familiar problem re-emerged: I had no experience in radiochemistry. So, with my group, we studied and learnt. The building of the radiochemistry laboratory SOMIL (Siemens Oxford Molecular Imaging Laboratory) and the appointment of excellent, adventurous, highly talented and driven postdoctoral fellows and DPhil students were critical to the successful launch of this ongoing programme. Today, with a modernised radiochemistry facility under construction and a cyclotron on its way to the department, along with a new initiative in molecular imaging, this will remain an active branch of my research. In the near future, there is also the exciting prospect of new collaborations for PET ligand discovery across the University, and beyond.

More or less twenty years in the job, and I am still anxious about “scientific stagnation”. I am also concerned about the problems currently facing a growing population, and its detrimental impact on the natural world: the supply of clean water and energy, food and materials from rapidly depleting resources on the planet. Such a state of play offers endless opportunities for chemistry to evolve, and my research plan for years to come is clear: a total rethink of fluorine organic chemistry, so that the manufacturing of fluorinated molecules is easier, safe, and circular. Yet again, this is all new, so we must study and learn.

Oxford is a highly concentrated environment of bright students and bright minds at all career stages. Together, we have the responsibility to make a difference for the benefit of humankind through the advancement of fundamental knowledge, and with new solutions to complex societal problems in turbulent times. The challenges ahead of us are enormous, but aren’t we incredibly privileged to have the opportunity to turn our scientific dreams into reality? A remarkable and globally impactful outcome is rare, yet exhilarating. Trying and persisting is what really matters.

Véronique Gouverneur, Oxford, October 2022

Professor Gouverneur has been appointed in 2022 to the Waynflete Professorship of Chemistry in the Department of Chemistry. Previous Waynflete Professors include William Henry Perkin Jr. (the first head of the Dyson Perrins laboratory), Sir Robert Robinson, Sir Jack Baldwin, and most recently Steve Davies.

Banner photo: Steve Cannon.