Young Scientists at #LINO70: Robert Mayer – Calculate the Chemical Mystery

In his current position Robert deals with fundamental questions that explore the origin of our lives like the genesis of amino acids. Photo/Credit: Christoph Burgstedt/iStock

Robert Mayer will participate in the 70th Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting (27 June – 2 July 2021). Here the young scientist from Germany, who has just moved to Strasbourg to start his postdoc, explains the topic of his PhD, talks about his fascination for Chemistry and tells us about his favourite sessions of the Online Science Days 2020.

My enthusiasm for chemistry was already aroused in school, where we were able to experiment a lot in class, which I really enjoyed. Our whole life is full of chemical riddles and things that might seem odd at first glance. No matter whether you choose a cleaning agent or the changes that occur to your meal while cooking: It often comes down to the question of which compounds react with each other and how.

Robert focuses his attention on chemical reactions. Photo/Credit: Courtesy of Robert Mayer

Basically, I also dealt with such questions during my PhD project, where I developed methods that can be used to rationalize and predict chemical reactions. In chemical research it is usually necessary to use trial & error and to carry out many experiments as it is usually not known if, and how fast, substances will react with each other.

In my research group at LMU in Munich we collected a lot of data on chemical reactions, on the basis of which it is possible to predict both reaction rates and thermodynamics. This gives chemists a rational guide to avoid unnecessary experiments when they want to develop new reactions.

Meanwhile, as a result of this data collection, a table with our reactivity rules is being used in many organic chemistry laboratories around the world. This method works intuitively and requires at maximum a pocket calculator.

Nonetheless, rates of chemical reactions can be predicted with superior accuracy than e.g. with highly complex simulations requiring days or weeks on supercomputers.

In my specific project, I used linear correlations within the framework which my group has developed to characterize the reactivity characteristics of compounds classes. These are relevant e.g. as catalysts in chemical reactions or as a potential structural motive in drugs. The prediction of chemical reactions is helpful, for example in the pharmaceutical industry for the acceleration of drug development.

The Riddle of Life

In the meantime, I completed my doctoral thesis and joined the Moran Research Group at the University of Strasbourg & CNRS. Here, I try to apply my knowledge of chemical reactivity to questions in the field of Prebiotic Chemistry: How did amino acids come about? How are the biochemical mechanisms that organisms use today related to potentially prebiotic reactions? I am pleased to address these fundamental questions that explore the origin of our lives. Even though this is a new field for me, understanding chemical reactivity sets the basis for understanding the very fundamental pathways that make up today’s organisms.

Communication Beyond Disciplinary Boundaries

Concerning the 70th Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting, I am particularly looking forward to the exchange with the other young scientists. I am interested in how other researchers shape their lives and what they do. I find it particularly nice to be able to attend an interdisciplinary Meeting. During the Online Science Days 2020, I already experienced communication beyond the boundaries of my own discipline as a special enrichment. Given that it took place just at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, it was exciting to hear experts from different backgrounds discuss the subject on an objective level. A personal highlight was the session with Bill Phillips. You don’t have to be a physicist to understand his enthusiasm and the impact of the topics he raised; I learned a lot from listening to him. As a chemist, Francis Arnold’s talk was also a special highlight. I think she can convey the fascination and beauty of our discipline exceptionally well.

About This Series

Within the next three months you will find more young scientists who are selected for #LINO70 on the blog to learn more about their career, their research and their plans for the future.

Further articles in this series:

Lučka Bibič about science communication by gamification

Jayeeta Saha about a green pathway to generate hydrogen

Daniel Reiche about his work as a theoretical physicist

Robert Mayer

About Robert Mayer

Chemical reactions are in the focus of Robert Mayer who is member of The Moran Research Group in Strasbourg after finnishing his PhD in Munich. He is participant of the 70th Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting.

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