Young chemist gets the right reaction for catalyst work

6 Sep 2013

Dr Angèle Monney (right), post-doctoral researcher at the Leibniz Institute for Catalysis in Rostock, Germany, at her graduation, with her mother

Last week, Dr Angèle Monney picked up the accolade of Royal Irish Academy Young Chemist’s Prize for her PhD work on metal-based catalysts. Claire O’Connell found out more.

Think for a moment of using your front-door key. A quick insert and twist in the lock, the key comes out unscathed and you walk through the open door. But if you lose that key, you could spend quite a bit of time trying to get into your locked house. 

Similarly in chemistry, a catalyst can speed up a specific chemical reaction but the catalyst doesn’t get permanently changed itself. 

Future Human

Why are catalysts important? We rely heavily on them: for example, they allow many biologically important reactions to happen in a time-frame that keeps us alive, and industry uses catalysts in chemical reactions to make products, such as pharmaceuticals. 

“Catalysis has become a very important tool in chemical synthesis –  it can allow reactions to proceed under milder conditions or in shorter time or with better selectivity – or to proceed at all,” explains Monney. “Catalytic reactions are also economical, which is very important for industry, and they allow for the reduction of waste, which is of particular importance nowadays in order to reduce the environmental impact.”

So getting catalysts to work more effectively could save money and energy, and bring down the waste. Monney has been working to get more insights into a particular group of catalysts that recruit metal so they can drive a reaction. The essay she wrote based on her PhD at University College Dublin (UCD) landed her the RIA Young Chemist’s Prize

From Fribourg to Dublin

A native of Switzerland, Monney became interested in chemistry at school, inspired by an enthusiastic teacher. Once she was hooked on the subject, she started to view the world from a new perspective. “Chemistry is all around us,” she says. “Life is made of chemical reactions and everything looks different and more exciting through the eyes of a chemist. Once I started, I couldn’t stop, I wanted to learn more and I still do.” 

She studied chemistry at the University of Fribourg, before moving to the University of Oxford for a master’s degree under the supervision of Prof Véronique Gouverneur. But no sooner had she returned to Fribourg to start a PhD with Prof Martin Albrecht, he moved to UCD. So Monney went, too. 

“At the beginning it wasn’t easy, my English wasn’t very good and a lot of things were different compared to Switzerland,” she recalls. “And Dublin seemed so big, especially because I’m from a tiny village in the countryside with about 400 inhabitants, so that was a big change for me. But I got use to that, I made a lot of friends and it truly became my second home.”

Enzymes show their metal

Her doctoral work built and examined new models for these metal-containing catalysts called ‘metalloenzymes’, where a metal centre is held in place in the protein’s active site.

“In order to better understand the way metalloenzymes work, chemists build and study models of their active sites,” explains Monney, who was particularly interested in how the amino acids of the protein bind to the metal to create the right structure for the catalyst to work.

“This amino acid, histidine, is very abundant in the active sites of metalloenzymes and it is thought to always bind to the metal in the same way, through a nitrogen atom,” she says. “But in this work, we decided to force this amino acid to bind to the metal in different ways.” When she tweaked the binding, she found she could build enzyme models that showed “excellent activity” and she discovered more about how the environment around the metal affects the catalyst’s active site. The insights could help to build a better picture of how metal-based catalysts work in nature, and they may also help to inform more effective uses, explains Monney, who is now working as a post-doctoral researcher at the Leibniz Institute for Catalysis in Rostock, Germany, and plans to move to research and development in industry. 

For budding chemists, she says chemistry can offer plenty of interesting challenges. “Chemistry is a hugely vast subject and there’s something for everyone provided you’re motivated and hard-working,” she says. “And research is especially interesting to me because there’s always something to study and new things to discover. I never get bored, there’s always something interesting to do.”

Young Chemist’s Prize

The objective of the RIA Young Chemist’s Prize is to recognise the most outstanding Irish PhD thesis of the year in the general area of the chemical sciences, explains Prof Pat Guiry, who is professor of synthetic organic chemistry, head of UCD School of Chemistry and Chemical Biology and a member of the RIA Chemical and Physical Sciences Committee

“As a committee we are very keen to support and encourage the next generation of chemists and to highlight the excellent research that is being undertaken in Ireland,” he says. “Dr Monney’s thesis was of a very high quality as evidenced by the number of publications arising from her work that are in high impact, internationally leading journals. The topic encompasses organic, inorganic and biological chemistry and has led to a specific advance in novel histidine-derived metal carbene complexes that have proven to be useful catalysts.”

Claire O’Connell is a member of the Royal Irish Academy’s Chemical and Physical Sciences Committee, but she had no role in selecting the awardee.

Women Invent Tomorrow is Silicon Republic’s year-long campaign to champion the role of women in science, technology,engineering and maths

Dr Claire O’Connell is a scientist-turned-writer with a PhD in cell biology and a master’s in science communication