Current Affiliation: University of Cambridge
Undergrad alma mater: University of Auckland
Role model: Bill Gates. He had the vision to change the world with technology and has used the financial rewards from his ventures to better the world through the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Fitzpatrick says.
Advice for young scientists: “Question the establishment. If someone tells you your idea won’t work, try to prove them wrong. Put in lots of effort and see where it gets you.”
Codename: Reaction Hacker
Some of the best ideas are born out of a desire to improve efficiency. When Daniel Fitzpatrick started his graduate work in Steven Ley’s lab at the University of Cambridge, he was assigned a chemical synthesis project. Fitzpatrick, who had just moved halfway around the world from his native New Zealand, found much of the work repetitive.
Setting up numerous reactions for optimization and then working each one up “was taking a huge amount of time, but it didn’t require any sort of intellectual thought on my part,” he recalls. He thought, “In other areas these sorts of repetitive tasks have been relegated to machines, so I’m sure it could happen in this case too.”
Within a year of joining the lab, Fitzpatrick built a reaction setup that could be monitored remotely, and then he connected the hardware to an internet-powered control system. He was now free to monitor his reaction and change parameters anywhere he had an internet connection—at home, in the pub, or on some sandy beach thousands of kilometers away. He’s since tweaked the system so it can optimize reactions on its own, send updates via text message, or even shut itself down automatically if the reaction temperature suddenly spikes at 2 AM.
Ley says Fitzpatrick’s software and hardware control systems “have the potential to completely revamp the way work is carried out in an R&D laboratory.”
Fitzpatrick has always liked tinkering with computers, even though he’s had no formal programming training. A few years ago, after finding the software the Ley lab was using to keep track of chemicals clunky, he decided to create a better system. That led to his first start-up, which he launched at age 21: ChemInventory (cheminventory.net). The software is now used by more than 350 groups in 53 countries.
Fitzpatrick still has a year before he finishes his Ph.D., but he has yet to decide whether he’ll apply his inventiveness to industry, academia, or even another start-up.
Research at a glance
Three key papers:
“A Novel Internet-Based Reaction Monitoring, Control and Autonomous Self-Optimization Platform for Chemical Synthesis” (Org. Process Res. Dev. 2015, DOI: 10.1021/acs.oprd.5b00313)
“Organic Synthesis: March of the Machines” (Angew. Chem. Int. Ed. 2015, DOI: 10.1002/anie.201410744)
“Machine-Assisted Organic Synthesis” (Angew. Chem. Int. Ed. 2015, DOI: 10.1002/anie.201501618)
They might be young scientists, but our Talented 12 have already traveled far and wide.
Watch Fitzpatrick talk about his research during a special Aug. 22 Talented 12 symposium held at the American Chemical Society national meeting in Philadelphia.