A conversation with Professor Doug Stephan, Einstein Visiting Fellow at TU Berlin

March 9, 2016 by Mandy Koroniak

Professor Doug Stephan was in 2016 named an Einstein Visiting Fellow at Technische Universität (TU) Berlin. He is the first chemist to be granted the award since Professor John Hartwig in 2011. Here Prof. Stephan discusses his research, collaborations in Germany, and his experience of moving to the University of Toronto in 2008.

Tell us about your general research program:

The program is focused on catalysis and we spend a lot of time worrying about how to make compounds that we think will be active and then evaluating them in catalysis. The thing that sets our work apart is that not only do we focus on transition metals for catalysis but also main group systems. In fact, we're heavily involved in main group catalysis which is an area that has undergone a kind of renaissance in the last 15 years or so.

Congratulations on the Einstein Visiting Fellowship! Tell me about your collaborations in Germany. 

We've been collaborating with Germans for about 20 years. It started with a sabbatical in '95 and ever since then I've been going back to Muenster. During my time in Muenster I met a person who was then junior faculty named Martin Oestreich, who is now a full professor at Berlin, and I've also known Matthias Driess for some time. They approached me about the Einstein Fellowship as it involves collaborations. The Einstein Fellowship provides not only funds for me to go there but also funds to support a couple of graduate students co-supervised by me in each of Martin's and Matthias’s groups.  

What are some of the research goals of this specific collaboration?

Basically, we're going to take some of our chemistry and try to apply it to specific organic problems. So the idea here is to try and make compounds that would be desirable from an organic perspective, so things that might be potential drugs, for example, or agri-chemicals, that kind of thing, but to make them in a way that is much more energy efficient than previous methods. We work in areas that are very similar. Martin is an organic chemist and we're inorganic chemists. So it's an ideal collaboration. Matthias does things that are much more industrially oriented, so we've done some of that as well and it's a good 3-way mix, I think.

You came to the University of Toronto from the University of Windsor in 2008. How has Toronto enabled your research program?

The move to UofT was life changing. I certainly had very good students when I was at Windsor, but I would say that UofT enables pretty much every aspect of the research effort. The facilities are fantastic. The colleagues are really collegial and helpful, and I have to say that was something I was a little worried about, because there's a lot of big stars in this department and I worried about how I would fit in, but they've been terrific. The student situation is dramatically different. When I was in Windsor I'd spend a great deal of my time recruiting, and just trying to get students to come and visit and talk chemistry and maybe convince them to come and work for me. Here of course recruiting is much less difficult. It's easy to convince people to come to Toronto the city, and certainly Toronto the University so that makes it easy. The number of people and quality of people is consistently high. The other thing is that the administration has been so supportive. It feels like I moved from triple A ball to "the show" and It's been the best 8 or 9 years of my career for sure.