Osvaldo Gutierrez is breaking new ground on the road to synthesizing medicine. The University of Maryland assistant professor of chemistry and biochemistry is creating shortcuts for costly experimental trial and error by modeling chemical reactions on computers before taking his experiments into the lab. The modeling allows him to predict how atoms and molecules will arrange themselves during chemical reactions and gives him a leg up on experimentation.
Gutierrez is among the few organic chemists in the world with expertise in both computational chemistry and experimental chemistry, and his lab is one of the only ones in the country taking that dual approach. Gutierrez’s unique methods are paying off. The National Institutes of Health recently awarded Gutierrez a $1.9 million Maximizing Investigators’ Research Award (MIRA).
“I’m very happy to have received this award,” said Gutierrez, who is also the department’s inaugural Nathan Drake Faculty Fellow. “The number of these MIRA grants that go to computational chemists or synthetic chemists is very, very small. They usually go to research in biological sciences, so this is very exciting, and it is a testament to the hard work from my entire research group and to the great mentors I have had.”
The five-year grant is the first MIRA award given to a faculty member in the department.
“This is an impressive single investigator award,” said Department Chair Janice Reutt-Robey. “This award is really a recognition of Osvaldo’s unique combination of computational chemistry and experimentation that is transforming organic chemistry research. We are very proud to have him on our faculty.”
The highly competitive grant aims to give researchers the flexibility to pursue their research as it evolves, exploring uncharted territory and pursuing high-risk ideas, rather than being held to specific outcomes.
Gutierrez and his research team are well versed in pursuing high-risk ideas. A central focus of their work—using iron as a catalyst to form carbon-carbon bonds—has generally been avoided by other researchers, because iron is highly reactive, difficult to characterize and challenging to work with. But Gutierrez and his team have already proven they can overcome those challenges with a combined computational and experimental approach. Their work is leading to new methods for producing medicines more safely and cheaply than current methods, which use palladium, a more expensive and toxic metal.
Another aspect of his research that will be supported by the MIRA is understanding how light activates certain catalysts, kicking off chemical reactions used to manufacture medicinal compounds. Scientists don’t really understand at the molecular and atomic levels how light serves as a catalyst, which means they can’t fully control or guide the reactions. The lack of control means the process is hit or miss—producing the desired reaction only a percentage of the time. By better understanding the catalytic processes, Gutierrez’s work will help synthetic chemists control and optimize the reactions, improving efficiency and potentially reducing the time and expense of making many medicinal compounds.
Gutierrez said the MIRA funding will help him expand and grow his lab, including adding more young researchers to his team, which he mentors in much the same way that others mentored him and contributed to his success. His lab currently includes 19 researchers: 11 undergraduates, 7 graduate students and one postdoctoral fellow. Two of the undergraduates attend Prince George’s Community College and two are McNair Scholars who receive support from the McNair Scholars Program, which is designed to prepare students from low-income, first generation and traditionally underrepresented groups to pursue doctoral studies.
“I have had great mentors here at UMD and early in my career at UCLA and UC Davis,” Gutierrez said. “And I believe that, if given the resources and the proper mentorship, anybody can succeed in academia or industry, or in government, or any of the science-sector jobs.”
He knows what he’s talking about. Born in Mexico, Gutierrez moved to California as a child and began his higher education at community college, which gives him a different perspective from many researchers who have reached his level of achievement.
“My purpose was never to make medicine or become a chemist or even to merge computation and experimental chemistry,” he said. “My purpose was really to make a living, and it was a mentor who saw something in me and who put that time and effort into molding me into what I am now. This award is a testament to that. And some of this money will be put back into the things that made me, because if you do the mentorship part correctly, the research will come out of that.”
July 28, 2020