When Alina Trofimova received an email in response to her application for a Doctoral Excellence Scholarship from the Faculty of Arts & Science, she wasn’t expecting to read that she’d won the highest award.
“At most, I’d hoped to maybe win one of the smaller scholarships,” she says. “So, I re-read the email ten times, looking for the ‘didn’t win’ part that I thought I overlooked. But I’d won the Dean’s scholarship and it's a huge honor that I’m very grateful for it.”
The Dean’s Doctoral Excellence Scholarship is the top prize in the Faculty of Arts & Science Excellence Awards, given to a PhD student in recognition of their achievements in research and for demonstrating leadership.
“I’m still an international student, so I can’t apply for NSERC or other major scholarships,” she says. “But I’m in the final year of my PhD and I was hoping to be a teaching assistant less and focus more on my research. As much as I love being a TA and working with students, this will allow me to do that.”
Trofimova is a member of Professor Andrei Yudin’s lab where Yudin and his team develop new tools for chemical synthesis and create innovative molecules.
“Over the past four years, Alina has made some of the most challenging molecules my lab has ever dreamed of,” says Yudin. “What sets her apart is the tenacity with which she approaches scientific challenges and the intellectual rigour with which she analyzes complex data.
“She is also an exemplary team member who has made considerable contributions to chemistry education by passing on her knowledge to other students, both in our lab and at U of T at large.”
In high school, Trofimova didn’t appear destined for an academic career in chemistry. She was a brilliant student in all her classes — except chemistry. But an excellent tutor not only helped Trofimova bring her mark up, she also sparked an interest in chemistry in her student. And in 2014, Trofimova moved from her home in Russia and enrolled in U of T where she eventually received her undergraduate degree in chemistry and nanochemistry. In 2019, she joined Yudin’s lab.
The scholarship recognizes the originality, significance and quality of a student’s research, which Trofimova has demonstrated in the papers she’s co-authored and contributed to during her time in the lab.
She is particularly proud of a project she co-lead with her fellow lab member, Aleksandra Holownia, that looked at the reactivity of molecules containing boron. The research is of interest to pharmaceutical companies investigating drugs containing those molecules.
Her current project, as yet unpublished, investigates a strange new compound discovered by biologists in 2015 called geraniline. It was derived from natural sources and synthesized through enzymatic processes and was unexpectedly bio-reactive. “As a synthetic chemist, I took it as a challenge to try and synthesize it in a chemical lab.”
Trofimova started to work on the problem three years ago and found that nothing she tried worked. “Many people didn’t even believe this compound existed, so it was hard not to give up when nothing was working. But about two months ago, I succeeded in synthesizing and isolating that compound, and it was really, really rewarding.”
And with any luck, thanks in part to the scholarship, those rewarding moments will continue throughout Trofimova’s final year.
Three runners-up for the scholarship were also recognized with A&S Doctoral Excellence Scholarships. They are: