Kami Hull

The Green Aminator

Synthesis innovator is developing greener, more efficient methods for modifying molecules

Kami L. Hull likes to build stuff. She began an undergraduate degree in theater set design but later got hooked on molecular-scale construction. “I saw the beauty in building very small scaffolds, and I thought, ‘I could apply my skills from the theater world to chemistry.’ ”

Specifically, she’s designing faster and more efficient ways to make important molecules—such as pharmaceuticals—with methods that also conserve our dwindling natural resources.

When she started her own lab at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, three years ago, Hull took a long look at a poster showing the world’s top 100 drug molecules. “More than 90% of these molecules have some sort of nitrogen atom in them,” she says. The way chemists add a nitrogen-hydrogen group across two carbon atoms—a so-called hydroamination—is very wasteful, she adds. These reactions often require many steps, an excessive amount of solvent, and reagents that aren’t environmentally friendly. Her current mission is to find green ways to install nitrogen groups in organic molecules while controlling the overall chirality, or handedness, of the molecule.

Her track record suggests she’ll be successful. As a Ph.D. student in Melanie Sanford’s group at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, Hull helped popularize palladium acetate as a workhorse catalyst for replacing the hydrogens in a carbon-hydrogen bond with everything from fluorine to complex carbon-ring structures. “Everyone uses this palladium catalyst so much that it has become dogma,” says David Thaisrivongs, a process chemist at Merck & Co. Now that the catalyst has become ubiquitous, “people take it for granted.”-Sarah Everts

Vital Stats

Current Affiliation: University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign

Age: 34

Ph.D. alma mater: University of Michigan, Ann Arbor

Talent: Devising more environmentally friendly synthesis routes for installing chemical groups in molecular scaffolds.

Scientific role model: Marie Curie. “Despite the fact that she was unable to enroll in a standard university because of her gender and the fact that she was poor, she sought out an education and self-financed it. Looking back at my own education and career, and reading about hers, I realize how lucky I was to be born in 1980 rather than in 1880.”

Three Most Important Papers By Hull:

“Regio- and Chemoselective Intermolecular Hydroamination of Allyl Imines for the Synthesis of 1,2-Diamines” (J. Am. Chem. Soc. 2014, DOI: 10.1021/ja505794u)

“Palladium-Catalyzed Fluorination of Carbon-Hydrogen Bonds” (J. Am. Chem. Soc. 2006, DOI: 10.1021/ja061943k)

“A Highly Selective Catalytic Method for the Oxidative Functionalization of C−H Bonds” (J. Am. Chem. Soc. 2004, DOI: 10.1126/10.1021/ja031543m)

Research At A Glance

During grad school, Hull helped develop a palladium catalyst that, under various conditions, could functionalize C–H bonds in molecules with fluorines, aryls, and other groups.

During grad school, Hull helped develop a palladium catalyst that, under various conditions, could functionalize C–H bonds in molecules with fluorines, aryls, and other groups.

Jacob Hooker
Matt Kanan
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