A chemist who rocks

Introducing the newest Arthur B. MacDonald Chair of Research Excellence

- April 13, 2020

Chemistry prof Mark Stradiotto. (Danny Abriel photo)
Chemistry prof Mark Stradiotto. (Danny Abriel photo)

Although an original plan to play drums in a rock band didn’t exactly work out, Mark Stradiotto is a star in the chemistry world.

The professor from the Faculty of Science has been named as Dal’s newest Arthur B. McDonald Chair of Research Excellence. He joins fellow researchers Randall Martin and Jean Marshall, who become the inaugural chairholders in 2016.

“I am very pleased that we have the opportunity to celebrate the incredible work being done by Dr. Stradiotto,” says Alice Aiken, Dal’s vice-president of research and innovation. “As a researcher and teacher, he has greatly enriched the Dalhousie community, and we’re incredibly proud to have him as the newest Arthur B. McDonald Chair of Research Excellence.”

The Arthur B. McDonald Chair of Research Excellence was established as a way to honour Dr. McDonald, a Dalhousie Alumnus and Nobel laureate, and to recognize and retain professors of high-calibre at the university. Nominees for the chair are expected to have achieved some international prominence in their field and demonstrated the impact of their research in that area. Chairholders are also expected to be successful in attracting top-quality students to their labs and train them to become future leaders.

“Mark is not only an outstanding researcher — genuinely one of Dalhousie’s finest — but also a passionate and caring teacher and mentor who is fully committed to making Dalhousie an excellent institution,” says Chris Moore, dean of the Faculty of Science and associate vice-president academic.

As an awardee of the research chair, Dr. Stradiotto will receive $50,000 a year for up to seven years to build upon his already substantial body of research.

“Being named an Arthur B. McDonald Chair of Research Excellence is a true honour,” says Dr. Stradiotto. “I am particularly proud of the fact that the award carries the name of Prof. McDonald, who was born and raised in Nova Scotia, is a Dalhousie alumnus, and was the co-recipient of the 2015 Nobel Prize in Physics. Most importantly, this Chair serves to highlight the world-class research conducted by members of my research group past and present, to whom I am deeply indebted.”  

Not just academic curiosity

Born and raised in Guelph, Ontario, Dr. Stradiotto completed both a BSc and PhD and McMaster University. He then went on to complete an NSERC Postdoctoral Fellowship at the University of California at Berkeley and moved to Dalhousie to take up a faculty position in the Department of Chemistry.

“Although I enjoyed science in school, I would never have predicted that I would become a chemistry professor,” says Dr. Stradiotto. “University coursework didn’t really capture my imagination until my third year of undergraduate studies, when I took a class in Organometallic Chemistry (from a particularly engaging professor) — the study of how metals coordinate to organic molecules and thus change their ‘rules of reactivity.’ I was hooked.”

It’s the combines making things and studying things that makes chemistry so fascinating to Dr. Stradiotto. “This is not just academic curiosity. Rather, these ideas and protocols are employed broadly on benchtop and industry scales in the synthesis of the pharmaceutical we rely on.”

Addressing societally important challenges in a more sustainable manner

The exploitation of metals to bring new reactions of organic molecules requires a way to control and guide the steps of the reaction. This helps make the processes efficient, selective and useful.

Nature does this by surrounding reactive metals with supporting molecules called ‘ligands.’ The hemoglobin in our blood, for example, features a reactive iron atom surrounded by a supporting ligand structure. Iron needs the supporting ligand to effectively carry out its biological function.

Dr. Stradiotto’s research group designs and makes ligands that can bind to metals to make complexes – fundamental research that seeks to better understand the ways in which ligands and metals interact – with the applied goal of preparing complexes that can serve as catalysts for some of the most difficult and sought-after chemical transformations.

They have developed a class of now-commercialized ligands (DALhousie PHOphines – ‘DalPhos’) that allow for inexpensive and abundant metals such as nickel to effect such catalytic cross-coupling reactions in a highly effective manner, and in ways that had not been possible previously.

“Our research breakthroughs have attracted the interest of the scientific community,” says Dr. Stradiotto. “As a result, we have a number of national and international collaborations with both academic and industrial partners to develop and apply our ‘DalPhos’ catalytic chemistry is addressing a range of societally important challenges in a more sustainable manner.”

The tip of the iceberg

It’s been about a decade since Dr. Stradiotto entered the field, and so far there have been a lot of highlights, and a few challenges.

This particular field is very competitive, given the importance of this kind of transformation in synthetic chemistry, including in the pharmaceutical industry.

“Many colleagues questioned my sanity: ‘Don’t you realize the big names working in that area? Surely someone would have solved these problems if they could be solved? What makes you think you can compete?”’ says Dr. Stradiotto.

“Undaunted, and with the good luck of having some spectacularly bright and capable undergraduate and graduate students in my group at the time, we pressed ahead with what we thought would be a new approach to ligand design in the field.”

This is what ultimately led to the development of Mor-DalPhos, which is one of the most effective ligands for use with palladium in such reactions. The commercialization of Mor-DalPhos has resulted in the widespread use of this catalyst technology in the way they had demonstrated, but also in ways they had not envisioned.

“This is a wonderful aspect of commercialization — it puts the tools you make in the hands of scientists around the world who can then put these tools to use in new and useful ways,” says Dr. Stradiotto.

“And more recently, we developed the now-commercialized ‘PAd-DalPhos’ family of ligands which allows cheap and abundant nickel to do the work of palladium – a paradigm shift. Once again, this seemed like a long-shot at the time, and I am proud of our accomplishments in bringing this from a fundamental concept design to a proven methodology. But this is just the tip of the iceberg!”

Developing the next generation

For Dr. Stradiotto, it has been a privilege to work a diverse collection of students, collaborators, and colleagues within the Department of Chemistry, Dalhousie, and beyond, who have inspired his research. But what he loves most is the role he plays as a mentor to students and other trainees in his group as they progress in their professional development.

“Trainees from my group have followed a diversity of professional paths on graduating from my research program, including taking up leadership positions internationally in both industry and academia,” says Stradiotto. “Helping them find the way that is right for them is perhaps the most rewarding aspect of my position.”
To learn more about Dr. Stradiotto’s work, visit the Stradiotto Research Group’s website.


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