The European Young Chemist Award 2012


  • Prof. Bruno Pignataro

    Corresponding author
    1. Dipartimento di Chimica “S. Cannizzaro”, University of Palermo, V.le delle Scienze Ed.17, 90128, Palermo (Italy)
    • Dipartimento di Chimica “S. Cannizzaro”, University of Palermo, V.le delle Scienze Ed.17, 90128, Palermo (Italy)
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The European Young Chemist Award (EYCA) 2012 was presented in Prague (Czech Republic) during the 4th European Association for Chemical and Molecular Sciences (EuCheMS) Chemistry Congress (4ECC, August 26–30, 2012). This was the fourth time this award has been given in connection with the EuCheMS Chemistry Congress and has become an integral part of the event. The inaugural award was bestowed during the 1st European Chemistry Congress, which took place at the ELTE Convention Centre in Budapest in 2006, while the second and the third were awarded in 2008 and 2010 during the conferences in Torino (Italy) and Nürnberg (Germany), respectively.13

Under the patronage of EuCheMs, the 4ECC, the Italian Chemical Society (SCI), the Italian Consiglio Nazionale dei Chimici (CNC), and the European Young Chemists Network (EYCN), the European Young Chemist Award (EYCA) 2012 was fully sponsored by CNC and SCI and the following organization has been employed:

Award Chair: Bruno Pignataro (SCI)

Advisory Board: Viviana Fluxa (EYCN), Cristina Todasca (EYCN), Santiago G. Ruiz (EYCN), Csaba Janáky (EYCN)

General Organization: Camillo Sartorio (University of Palermo)

The award is aimed to showcase and recognize the excellent research being carried out by young scientists working in the chemical sciences. In particular, it is intended to honor and encourage younger chemists whose current research displays a high level of excellence and distinction. It seeks to recognize and reward younger chemists of exceptional ability who show promise of making major contributions in chemistry-related research fields. Applicants for the award had to be less than 35 years old by 26 August 2012 and co-authors of an abstract submitted to the 4ECC.

This time around, there were about 50 applicants in the age range of 22–34 years old (Figure 1); 64 % of the applicants were male and about 50 % were PhD students. In addition, two master degree students and one lower level student submitted an application. Practically no applications came from industry, even if many of the papers dealt with problems of great industrial interest, and only very few researchers have been and/or are in close contact with industry. The number of countries from where the applications originated remained at about the same level as for the previous EYCA competitions (Figure 1).13 Competitors applied from all over the European Union and also from China, Japan, India, Indonesia, Ukraine, and Russia. A characteristic of many applicants is indeed that they have worked and moved to experience different laboratories all around the world.

Figure 1.

Distribution of nationality (top) and age (bottom) of the applicants. The number of male participants (64 %) was higher than female (36 %). Note that the nationality of the applicant does not necessarily coincide with the location of the institution at which the applicant is doing research.

The competitors presented contributions from most areas of chemistry and in particular from all areas featured in the 4ECC Symposia. In the following the most outstanding research topics co-authored by the applicants are summarized:

In the field of Nanochemistry and Nanotechnology, Massimo Baroncini (University of Bologna, Italy) reported on the development of artificial molecular machines, reporting on how a simple supramolecular assembly can be operated to unidirectionally thread through a crown ether macrocycle using UV light and potassium ions as stimuli. The described system constitutes a first step towards the realization of an artificial molecular pump. Gabriel Loget (University of Bordeaux, France) proposed new concepts based on bipolar electrochemistry, and thereby presented an original and competitive tool for generating motion at the micro- or sub-microscale, which opens new perspectives in micro- and nanosystem technologies. In his application, G. Bergamini (University of Bologna, Italy) reported on a multichromophoric dendrimer for intramolecular energy up-conversion. In particular these described dendritic systems may be applied to the sensitization of photovoltaics by harvesting the red and near infrared region of the solar spectrum. Haralampos N. Miras (University of Glasgow, UK), presented work on the first example of a controlled chemical oscillation in supramolecular chemistry accompanied with major structural rearrangement. The results bring us one step closer to understanding the formation of self-assembled systems. The related findings show in particular the potential of polyoxometalate cluster capsules for the design of “smart” molecules and responsive materials.

In the field of Physical, Theoretical and Computational Chemistry, four different contributions deserve mention. Elisabetta Collini (University of Padua, Italy) reported on two evolutionary-related light-harvesting proteins, isolated from marine algae, by means of two-dimensional electronic spectroscopy experiments with the aim to contribute to the understanding of the role of the arrangement of chromophores in the coherent energy migration in light-harvesting complexes. Israel Fernández López (Universidad Complutense de Madrid, Spain) discussed the study of the origins of the reaction barriers in dyotropic and double group transfer (DGT) reactions with the help of the so-called activation strain model and reported how they found that the activation strain associated with the structural rearrangement of the reactants is also the controlling factor for the high-energy of the DGT reaction barriers. In another application, D. Buckley (University of Colorado at Boulder, US) described his work on “degenerate femtosecond pump probe experiments of lead sulfide nanocrystals at the band gap of potential photovoltaic interest.” Stephan N. Steinmann (Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne, Switzerland) demonstrated that standard density functionals fail to accurately describe interaction energies of charge-transfer complexes not only because of the missing long-range exchange as generally assumed, but mostly because of the neglected ubiquitous dispersion interactions. Tetrathiafulvalene-tetracyanoquinodimethane, a typical organic charge-transfer complex, is an illustrative example of the above failure.

In the field of Organic Chemistry there were many excellent contributions, Matthias D'Hooghe (Ghent University, Belgium), discussed the synthetic flexibility of functionalized aziridines and azetidines for the preparation of different types of aza- and oxaheterocyclic structures. The work presented a variety of new ring-rearrangement protocols for the selective transformation of aziridines and azetidines into different heterocyclic systems. Nuno Maulide (Max Planck Institut für Kohlenforschung, Germany) reported a spectrum of the recent advancements in the field of catalytic molecular rearrangements as a tool for C[BOND]C bond formation done by his group at Mülheim an der Ruhr. Jerome Waser (Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne, Switzerland) reported on the catalytic cyclization and annulation reactions of aminocyclopropanes. This reaction worked for olefins, aldehydes, and ketones as partners. Key for success of the presented reactions is the modulation of the push–pull properties of the substituents on the aminocyclopropane. Alicia Casitas (Universitat de Gerona, Spain) described nucleophilic aryl-fluorination and aryl-halide exchange reactions mediated by a CuI/CuII catalytic cycle. Timothy Noël (Eindhoven University of Technology, The Netherlands) discussed microflow chemistry as a new possibility for synthetic chemists in a variety of reactions such as Buchwald–Hartwig aminations, Suzuki–Miyaura cross-coupling reactions, Pd-catalyzed fluorinations, and click chemistry. Building synthetic and therapeutic proteins was the focus of another interesting application in this area by G. Bernardes (Swiss Federal Institute of Technology–ETH Zurich, Switzerland). In this work different strategies to modify proteins in a controllable and specific manner were presented in which reaction engineering at cysteine as well as traceless, homogenous antibody-drug conjugates (ADCs) for cancer therapy were considered. Alexander Tskhovrebov (Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne, Switzerland) reported on the fixation of nitrous oxide by carbenes and the reactivity of activated N2O. This work shows in particular that N-heterocyclic carbenes are able to fix N2O and form stable adducts and these adducts can be regarded as a source of activated N2O displaying unique reactivity as evidenced by different organic and organometallic transformations.

In the field of Analytical Chemistry and Electrochemistry, Amilan J. Devadoss (Friedrich-Schiller-Universität Jena, Germany) discussed the supramolecular recognition of bioanalytes. This work makes an important contribution to the challenging task of developing synthetic receptors for the selective recognition of biologically important analytes under physiological conditions. Yury Tsybin (Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne, Switzerland) presented work on enhanced Fourier transform (eFT) and filter diagonalization (FDM) MS mass spectrometry methods and compared the advantages of these methods for the structure analysis of large intact proteins, including the monoclonal antibodies as well as in the analysis of extremely complex environmental samples such as crude oils and biofuels. The application by Y. Monakhova (Chemisches und Veterinäruntersuchungsamt (CVUA) Karlsruhe, Germany) focused on chemometrics as a tool to increase the efficiency of spectroscopic analysis of food and environmental matrices. The examples presented showed that the combination of NMR and UV/VIS spectroscopic techniques with chemometric methods is a valuable tool to develop screening methods for checking the authenticity and quality of these samples. D. Zigah's (University of Bordeaux, France) application centered on bipolar electrochemistry as an original method to produce asymmetric Janus micro- and nanoparticles in the bulk phase. Areas ranging from molecular electronics to targeted drug delivery may benefit significantly from the introduction of this technology. Finally, M. Pasta's (Stanford University, US) application focused on work dedicated to the important electrochemical problem of batteries for water desalinization. The proposed method exploited an electrical energy input to extract sodium and chloride ions from seawater, generating fresh water. The described process gives results that are comparable to those obtained by reverse osmosis.

In the Life Sciences, Olalla Vázquez (University of Santiago de Compostela, Spain) reported on new specific agents and fluorescent probes for DNA recognition. This work described the design, synthesis, and study of non-natural peptide derivatives, which despite being structurally simpler, are capable of mimicking the DNA binding properties of the transcription factors.

In the field of Solid-State Chemistry and Materials Chemistry, M. Kern's (Colorado School of Mines, US) application centered on ordered hybrid thin films from poly(3-hexylthiophene) block copolymers for photovoltaic applications. Marie-Alexandra Neouze (Vienna University of Technology, Austria) described an ionic nanoparticle network as a new versatile organic-inorganic hybrid material. The focus of this work was on the study of the catalytic and luminescent properties of these materials as well as on the potential application of the material. Shan Jiang (University of Liverpool, UK) presented an experimental and molecular dynamic simulation study of porous amorphous organic cages. The aims of this work were to understand these systems for the optimization and development of industrial applications of these amorphous materials in separation and catalytic process, and to develop a methodology to generate simulated structures of amorphous cage materials.

In the field of Environment and Green Chemistry, G. Chatel's (Université de Savoie, France) application focused on the use of a combination of ionic liquids/ultrasound for various organic chemistry applications.

In the field of Inorganic Chemistry, Shigeyoshi Inoue (Technische Universität Berlin, Germany) reported on the synthesis, structure, and catalytic properties of transition-metal complexes with spacer-separated bis-silylene ligands. C. Streb's (University of Erlangen, Germany) application documented work on molecular metal-oxides (polyoxometallates) as visible-light driven synthetic oxygen-evolving catalysts.

The scientific standing of the candidates was very high as reported by some of the symposia chairs of 4ECC and other experts. Moreover, their research work has been considered very stimulating and at a very high level similar to the previous EYCA competitions (for a detailed overview of previous EYCA research works please also refer to references 49.

Very laudatory letters were presented to support the applications of many of the competitors and especially of the 18 selected finalists (names shown in boldface), with several very gratifying judgments on their scientific quality. A flavor of some of these is given below, where some phrases in the recommendation letters have been slightly adapted: “He has a genuine talent, an innate creativity and a strong commitment to chemistry. Moreover, he is skillful, hard-working, and open-minded. His bright star is indeed on the rise. In my experience, it will be very difficult to find a scientist of this age with a better personality and higher capacities than him. Last but not least, he is a friendly and adaptive person.” “He has done stellar work.” “Her work has impacted fields ranging from physics to chemistry to biology and has inspired many theoretical research programs. She is a superb scientist with the skills to perform incredibly difficult experiments and to model results based on theory. She has shown the ability to imagine innovative ideas for new research directions. I think she will be the next superstar of Italian science.” “I have witnessed from the beginning his ability to develop novel ideas and to produce new science. I am really impressed by his outstanding productivity and creativity, as well as his constructive networking capability, which has permitted him to establish synergistic collaborations with many top-level European chemists. Along his still short scientific career, he has obtained many scientific awards and has been able to start a scientific program of his own. For these reasons I consider him among the most brilliant European chemists of his generation.” “There are many very good experimental synthetic chemists and highly gifted, outstanding theoreticians. However, highly productive scientists working competently and creatively in both fields are really scarce.” “The best way to define him is as truly exceptional.” “As a person and as a teacher he is very charismatic. He is able to motivate the people working with him and to instill in them enthusiasm to succeed. He is a good person to work with, and the students say that he is also a good man to learn from, even if he is highly demanding with them. I believe he is one of the leaders of the actual generation of European Chemists.” “I am convinced he is an excellent candidate for the prestigious chemists award.” “He has received national and international recognition for his impressive contributions while he was pursuing research work for his Ph.D. degree.” “He impresses me as a talented and hard-working researcher. I found him intelligent, competent and enthusiastic.” “He goes far beyond what is normally required of him and shows great curiosity in pursuing his own analyses of the subject of his research. I found him alert, observant and enthusiastic.” “He is a very talented chemist and his innovative research ideas deal with multiple disciplines.” “I can qualify him without hesitation as the best PhD student I have had so far in my career.” “Not only is he particularly bright and full of original ideas, but he is also hard-working, totally reliable, and highly professional, he possesses all the qualities, including originality, stamina, dedication, easy contact with the students, ability to raise research money, and a particularly professional, yet highly entertaining, way of presenting his results to an audience, required to be a successful academic.” “He is an exceptional researcher (all this work, and much more, has taken a little over three years) for whom I predict a bright future.” “He is independent, full of original ideas, totally reliable, hard-working, remarkably skilled and efficient at the bench, always on top of his literature and pleasant to work with. All these qualities, including his didactic and professional ways to deliver a lecture, have been recognized in the form of several international prizes that he has received throughout his PhD.” “His research creativity has already led to a number of excellent publications and he has been invited to several important international meetings in which his ability to deliver his lectures coupled with the high quality of his research were unanimously recognized. The candidate is a rising star in the field of chemistry in general and organic chemistry in particularly, encompassing organometallic and bioorganic chemistry.” “His originality and productivity are a clear testimony to the numerous future contributions that the candidate, no doubt, will be able to bring to these and other fields of research. He is rapidly being recognized worldwide as one of the leading young European chemists.” “He has pioneered a number of new research strands. I consider the candidate to be one of the top, if not the top, person I have mentored.”

Three candidates have received ERC starting grants. Much of the scientific output of the candidates has appeared in high quality journals with some of the competitors having papers in Nature, Science, Chemical Reviews, Angewandte Chemie, JACS, and other top journals. Some of their work has been highlighted or considered as a hot paper, or has even been featured on the front covers of prestigious journals. Among the candidates there were also some who are already functioning as group leaders with teams of more than 15 researchers. Most of the finalists have received several awards, and some are members of Editorial Boards of scientific journals or are authors of patents. All have given several invited talks, often at important international meetings. In terms of bibliometric indices, there were finalists with a hindex as high as 17 and more than 900 citations, and others having more than 90 published papers in peer-reviewed international journals. Several candidates were also selected to give an oral presentation at the Congress in Prague.

The Symposia Chairs from the 4ECC and/or recognized international scientific experts were given the difficult task of coming up with the 18 finalists (Figure 2) and to aid this process an evaluation form was used. The criteria and scores employed in the evaluation are given below:

Figure 2.

A photograph of the EYCA2012 finalists. From left to right: Top: M. Baroncini, M. D'hooghe, A. G. Tskhovrebov, Y. Tsybin, G. Loget, J. Waser; middle: I. F. López, N. Maulide, S. Inoue, T. Noël, M. A. Neouze, H. Miras; bottom: O. Vázquez, E. Collini, A. J. Devadoss. The finalists A. Casitas, S. Steinmann, S. Jiang are missing in this picture.

  • 1Curriculum vitae and supporting letters (the reviewer was asked to rate the excellence in chemistry and the related field of the applicant; score: 0–10).
  • 2Scientific relevance of the field (with respect to the thoroughness and depth of understanding of the research area, the reviewer was asked to rate the relevance and innovation of the research in the related scientific setting; score: 0–8).
  • 3Impact (in connection with the awareness of the future perspectives of their research, the reviewers were asked to rate how the research advances the scientific knowledge, and what effect it will have on the concepts and the methods that drive the field; score: 0–7).
  • 4Scientific and technical value (in terms of the originality and independent contribution, the reviewer was asked to evaluate the degree of novelty of the results with respect to the state of the art of the field on a scale ranging from modest improvements of known results to real breakthroughs capable of opening new research tracks; score: 0–15).

Owing to the high quality of the applicants, the selection procedure was very tough, and it was a pity that some very high caliber scientists, particularly in relation to their young age, could not be included among the finalists, even though they were selected to give oral contributions at the 4ECC. The selection procedure finally reduced the number of applicants to the 18 finalists (six of these at PhD level), which were divided into two groups according to the stage of their academic career. Like in the other years a special jury selected the winners. This year we had the pleasure to have a jury (Figure 3) comprising Prof. Robert H. Grubbs (California Institute of Technology, USA), the Nobel Laureate in Chemistry 2005, Prof. Vincenzo Aquilanti, Professor Emeritus of Chemistry (University of Perugia, IT), and Prof. Viktor Brabec (Director of the Department of Molecular Biophysics and Pharmacology–Institute of Biophysics of Brno, Czech Republic).

Figure 3.

From left to right: Viktor Brabec, Vincenzo Acquilanti, Robert H. Grubbs (the jury), and Bruno Pignataro during a break in the final of the EYCA2012 competition.

The jury selected one gold and two silver medals for both the 35-year-old level and the PhD level. Also for this last selection process, the adopted criteria considered the following:

  • excellence in chemistry and related fields
  • originality and independent contribution
  • thoroughness and a depth of understanding of the research area
  • awareness of the future perspectives of the research

The three winners of each category were awarded their medals plus the certificates and remuneration during the Closing Ceremony of the 4ECC. The medalists were as follows:

35 years old level:

Gold Medal (1800 €):

Dr. Elisabetta Collini (Università di Padova, Italy)

Silver Medals (ex-equo: 800 € each):

Prof. Yury O. Tsybin (École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne, Switzerland)

Dr. Jerome Waser (École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne, Switzerland)

PhD level:

Gold Medal (800 €):

Shan Jiang (University of Liverpool, UK).

Silver Medals (ex-equo: 600 € each):

Gabriel Loget (Université de Bordeaux, France)

Olalla Vázquez (Universidad de Santiago de Compostela, Spain).

I sincerely acknowledge the CNC and the SCI and their Presidents, Roberto Zingales and Vincenzo Barone, for sponsoring the Award, the Symposia Chairs and experts involved in the selection of the finalists, the jury for their availability for this hard task, my co-workers for their continuous help, Francesco De Angelis, Sergio Facchetti, and Nineta Majcen for help and encouragement, the local organizers with Pavel Drasar for the support, the EYCN, EuCheMs and the 4ECC for supporting the event (Figure 4).

Figure 4.

Representatives of the institutions supporting the EYCA2012. From left to right: Pavel Drasar (4ECC), Cristina Todasca (EYCN), Ulrich Schubert (EuCheMs), Francesco De Angelis (SCI), and Sergio Facchetti (CNC).

I would like to finish this editorial with a picture showing the two gold medal winners (Figure 5). At the end of the event, one of the conference attendees told me “the future is safe!” One can probably be very optimistic given the creativity showed by this group of emerging scientists, particularly in light of their ability to develop highly innovative interdisciplinary and collaborative projects.

Figure 5.

The two EYCA2012 gold medalists during the award ceremony. Elisabetta Collini for the 35 years level (left) and Shan Jiang for the PhD level (right).