Issue Date: February 28, 2011
Arthur C. Cope Scholar Awards: Vy M. Dong
Inspired by her first semester of sophomore organic chemistry with Larry E. Overman at the University of California, Irvine, Vy M. Dong switched her major from ecology to chemistry. “I was amazed that relatively simple but powerful concepts in chemistry could be used to make molecules that had function in biology,” she recalls.
As an undergraduate, she explored that ability by doing research in Overman’s laboratory. “It was an eye-opening experience that made me realize how little I knew about organic synthesis,” recalls Dong, now an associate professor at the University of Toronto. “I spent most of my time trying not to break the glassware.”
Determined to learn more, Dong began graduate studies with David W. C. MacMillan at UC Berkeley. Two years later, she helped MacMillan move his laboratory to California Institute of Technology, where Dong completed her doctoral studies on developing tandem reactions for streamlining the synthesis of macrolide antibiotics. To extend her training to organometallic and supramolecular chemistry, Dong returned to UC Berkeley for postdoctoral work with Robert G. Bergman and Kenneth N. Raymond. In a collaborative project, she investigated the formation and stabilization of iminium ions within a chiral nanovessel.
In the summer of 2006, she moved north to set up her own research laboratory at the University of Toronto, where she focuses on inventing new catalytic transformations. Dong has made progress in challenging areas of catalysis, including the functionalization of C–H bonds, activation of carbon dioxide, and vicinal oxidation of simple olefins.
She aims to invent organometallic pathways that facilitate the synthesis of biologically interesting molecules. Dong, 34, says, “There is still a need for developing transformations that are closer to meeting the high standards defined by green chemistry.”
Dong also finds motivation in mentoring students. “It’s great to work with talented students who are working hard to turn rough ideas into useful synthetic methods,” she says. Dong, a Texas native, adds, “Besides chemistry, I’m learning about Canadian culture from my students, including the importance of hockey, snow, and Tim Hortons,” a chain of coffee shops.
At Toronto, Dong has developed creative methods for making heterocycles of interest to medicinal chemistry, including indoles, benzofurans, lactones, and lactams. Robert H. Morris, a colleague there, admires the productivity and originality Dong has shown in the few years she has been at the university. “Professor Vy Dong is an exceptional young organic chemist who has already demonstrated outstanding imagination and leadership in her independent academic career,” he says.
Dong’s catalytic approach for making lactones from simple ketoaldehydes has received significant recognition. Using a rhodium catalyst, she can prepare small and medium-sized lactones—including ones found in nature—with complete regio- and enantioselectivity and without generating any waste products. Bergman calls the work “groundbreaking.”
And although she may have broken glassware as a student, Bergman says Dong’s independent career has gotten off to a “meteoric start.”
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