Alex Spokoyny

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Current Affiliation: UCLA

Age: 31

Ph.D. alma mater: Northwestern University

Role model: “My grandfather, Yuri Spokoyny. He grew up in a poor Jewish family, survived World War II, and ultimately became a prolific electrical engineer in the Soviet Union.”

In a world without chemistry, I would be: “A lawyer or barkeeper—I enjoy interacting with people, and arguing with them sometimes.”

Codename: Inorganic Architect

Many scientists say that as a kid they always wanted to be a scientist. That wasn’t the case for UCLA’s Alex Spokoyny. “Growing up in Russia in a family where my mom was a biologist and my dad was a physicist, there was always pressure to be a scientist,” Spokoyny says.

Although he liked analyzing things, he was also a natural contrarian who would argue with his parents. Still, Spokoyny eventually compromised with his mom and dad, agreeing to attend a science high school in Russia. While there, a funny thing happened: He got hooked on chemistry.

“There’s a Russian saying: ‘Sometimes the appetite comes during the meal.’ It was really the experimental side of chemistry that captured my interest.”

Spokoyny has been hungry ever since. From his undergraduate days through his postdoc, Spokoyny has studied a vast array of chemical systems, including boron-based clusters with therapeutic potential, metal-organic framework compounds that separate gases, and methods to modify proteins.

He’s now integrating that collective wisdom into something distinctly his own—what he calls “organomimetic” chemistry. “We still have limited chemical building blocks for making compounds,” Spokoyny says. The goal of his lab is to develop boron-based inorganic clusters as three-dimensional alternatives to conventional “flat” organic molecules.

Decorating the clusters with various functional groups to manipulate their properties allows researchers to do new and interesting chemistry. For example, adding aryl ether groups and then activating the clusters with light enables them to jump-start polymerizations without expensive metal-based catalysts. The possibilities for organomimetic chemistry are vast, Spokoyny says, and could include a more versatile approach to converting sunlight into electricity and the development of highly selective cancer therapies.

“Alex is one of the most accomplished, mature, visionary young scientists I’ve ever met,” says Northwestern University’s Chad A. Mirkin, one of Spokoyny’s former advisers. “He has a better understanding of chemical reactions and how to harness them than most full professors.”

Research at a glance

Spokoyny’s group has built light-activated functionalized carboranes to serve as metal-free catalysts. One of these catalysts, shown here, can activate tricky olefins such as isobutylene to make highly branched polymers. Credit: Courtesy of Alex Spokoyny

Spokoyny’s group has built light-activated functionalized carboranes to serve as metal-free catalysts. One of these catalysts, shown here, can activate tricky olefins such as isobutylene to make highly branched polymers. Credit: Courtesy of Alex Spokoyny

Three key papers:

“Visible-Light Induced Olefin Activation using 3D Aromatic Boron-Rich Cluster Photooxidants” (J. Am. Chem. Soc. 2016, DOI: 10.1021/jacs.6b03568)

“A Perfluoroaryl-Cysteine SNAr Chemistry Approach to Unprotected Peptide Stapling” (J. Am. Chem. Soc. 2013, DOI: 10.1021/ja400119t)

“A Coordination Chemistry Dichotomy for Icosahedral Carborane-Based Ligands” (Nat. Chem. 2011, DOI: 10.1038/nchem.1088)

Career paths:

They might be young scientists, but our Talented 12 have already traveled far and wide.

alex_spokoyny_map

Stories in C&EN about Spokoyny’s:

Switchable Catalysts

Cross-Linking Technique Could Complement Peptide Stapling

 


Watch Spokoyny talk about his research during a special Aug. 22 Talented 12 symposium held at the American Chemical Society national meeting in Philadelphia.

Renã Robinson
Ke Xu 
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