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Kami Hull Seeks to Make Drugs Faster with Less Waste

Kami Hull Seeks to Make Drugs Faster with Less Waste

New faculty in Natural Sciences conduct compelling research and inspire new generations, right out of the gate. As the 2019-20 academic year begins, we are introducing faculty members whose compelling work is worth learning about. Here meet Kami Hull. Within months of joining the faculty, she won a prestigious Novartis Early Career Award in Chemistry in recognition of her research, which involves developing more efficient processes for synthetic organic chemistry.

As an organic chemist, what kinds of problems do you hope to solve with your research?

Many of the chemicals we make in modern society—from fertilizers and pesticides to drugs—are derived from oil. But the way we make them is really wasteful. It takes both a lot of time and consumes a lot of resources. My group is trying to use transition metals to develop more efficient transformations of organic molecules. The more efficient we can be with that, the longer our natural resources should last us.

Imagine you're making pasta. You boil up water, you add salt, you add olive oil and you add pasta and you boil it. But in the end, you're only eating the pasta and the rest goes to waste. It's very similar in organic synthesis, where we're taking our reagents and combining them in solvent, and we end up throwing away a lot of the leftover reagents and/or the byproducts of the transformation.

What are some of the strategies you're looking at to speed up reactions and make them less wasteful?

Roughly 90 percent of pharmaceuticals have a carbon-nitrogen bond in them. Coming up with selective ways of incorporating nitrogen into molecules is a really attractive approach, because there's no waste from that transformation. One of the most efficient ways is to use ammonia, because it's a very good source for nitrogen that's naturally abundant and easy to access. But we're bad at putting it into organic molecules. So, one of the reactions that we're going after is called the hydroamination reaction.

This is something you're working towards?

This is something I've been working on since I began my independent career in 2012. The selective addition of ammonia was identified in 1992 as a top challenge in catalysis, and it's still not solved. So 26 years later, it's still this ongoing challenge that a lot of people, including Nobel Prize winners, are working towards.

If you're successful, what impact would it have in the world?

It typically takes about 17 years from going after a drug target to actually getting a drug to market. And a lot of that time is in the very early stages when medicinal chemists explore the space and go after reactions. I see myself as an inventor that's helping speed up that early stage. Our tools can also help process chemists, who try to find the most efficient way to scale up a [drug] target so it can actually be given to patients. Medicinal chemists care about the efficiency in terms of time, while process chemists care about the waste and cost. We're trying to enable both of those. Any new tools we can give to accelerate the drug discovery timeline could have a really positive impact on human health.

When you started college, you had strong interests in both chemistry and theater. How did you settle on chemistry?

In theater I was using my artistic abilities and my puzzle-solving abilities to build giant scaffolds and put on dramatic productions. In chemistry I could use those same skills to synthesize really small scaffolds, to make a molecule one bond at a time. I felt like the skills really were transferrable. The theater department, though, was run by the actors and they didn't really let me integrate into the program. The chemistry professors were all very caring and created a really nurturing environment. Once I took organic chemistry, I saw that I love solving puzzles and that organic chemistry is a giant puzzle. That really inspired me, and I began focusing solely on chemistry.

You joined UT's chemistry faculty this past year. Do you think that experience of your undergraduate chemistry department being nurturing and supportive has shaped how you want UT's chemistry program to be?

I think so. It definitely shaped how I run my own research group. At the University of Illinois, I really took pride in trying to be that more nurturing, caring professor. And if you look at our productivity, we outpaced those of the less nurturing professors. It does actually work for running a research group, and ideally I would like our program as a whole to have that same type of atmosphere. I'm on the assistant professor hiring committee, so I'm looking to hire people who are both excited about research but also excited about interacting with students, helping to build a positive environment and helping to recruit faculty that are positive and caring. That's a goal of mine.

What else do you want to see accomplished?

Texas has a very large Latinx population but the chemistry department here doesn't, so I'd really like to help establish a more diverse student body within our graduate and undergraduate student bases. And in order to do that you really have to make sure you have a supportive environment, so I'd like to work on that as one of my goals. I'd also like to support women in chemistry, because there's a really leaky pipeline of both minorities and women in chemistry. Entering graduate school it's about 50/50 men to women but entering industry it's about 70/30 and entering academia it's about 90/10 men to women. I want to foster an environment that encourages women and other minorities to pursue their dreams and not get lost along the way. I have been the only woman in a lab of 15 men. If you look around and no one looks like you it can be a little intimidating. Building those networks for the students can really help them to succeed.

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Tuesday, 17 September 2019

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