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Past Winner
2007 NSERC André Hamer Postgraduate Prize

Charles S. Yeung

Doctoral Level

University of Toronto

Charles S. Yeung
Charles S. Yeung

As a prime culprit in global warming, carbon dioxide is all too often viewed in a negative context. But at least one researcher at the University of Toronto is determined to seize on the lesser-publicized, positive attributes of CO2 to fashion organic molecules that could someday form the basis of important new pharmaceutical therapies.

Charles Yeung, a doctoral student in organic and biological chemistry, and winner of this year's NSERC André Hamer Postgraduate Prize for Doctoral Students, says CO2 is an ideal feedstock for synthesizing organic molecules because it is economical, non-toxic and highly abundant. He notes that, while nature employs CO2 efficiently in plant photosynthesis, the incorporation of this small molecule into valuable synthetic chemical compounds remains a daunting challenge for scientists.

"From a scientific standpoint, we are not yet at the point where we can capitalize on CO2 as an ideal raw material for organic synthesis," remarks Yeung. "But with inspiration from nature, I believe we can get there."

One of the challenges, he says, is that CO2 is generally not very reactive. To address this shortcoming, Yeung is exploring the use of nickel as a medium for catalyzing a reaction between CO2 and organozinc reagents.

The end products of the reaction are carboxylic acids. These compounds – present in a range of common substances, from breast milk and coconut oil to soaps and vinegar – are considered highly valuable for drug development because they play an important functional role in stitching disparate molecules together. Among pharmaceuticals, one of the best known carboxylic acids is acetylsalicylic acid, commonly known as aspirin.

If Yeung's past academic record is any indication, his odds of succeeding with CO2 as synthetic feedstock would appear to be quite high. Yeung's former professors at the University of British Columbia unanimously agree that he is best undergraduate to complete the chemistry program in recent history.

Yeung's scholastic achievements began during his years as a student at Alpha Secondary School in Burnaby, B.C. Among his many accomplishments in high school, he represented Canada at the 2002 International Chemistry Olympiad in the Netherlands.

He says his grade 11 chemistry teacher, Gloria Ho, provided plenty of encouragement and extracurricular activities that tilted his academic career choice toward chemistry.

"I had an excellent chemistry teacher who was very inspirational and generous with her time after school. She truly made me believe that if I really put my mind to something, I can succeed in getting it done."