What’s so magical about chemistry labs?

A conversation with Éric Lévesque, Ph.D.

Éric Lévesque has always believed in solving problems with science. Before joining NuChem Sciences, he used his chemistry expertise to tackle problems from the environment to health.

Today, Éric works at the frontline of NuChem’s services by creating and testing compounds that could one day become a successful drug.

We talked to Éric about how chemistry can change the world and the magic moments of lab work.

What inspired you to pursue a career in chemistry?

I’ve been interested in science and understanding the mechanics of the world around us since I was a young kid. I first became specifically interested in chemistry while I was in CÉGEP during our organic chemistry class.

During one class, the teacher went to the board and starts showing us synthesis – how you start with one thing, and you mix chemicals and it becomes something else. It was almost like LEGO!

That class hit a nerve. It seemed like using the building blocks of the universe, and I’m delighted to have made a career out of it. Eleven years later, I had a Ph.D. in the field.

Do you still feel that passion?

Definitely. What I love about my career is that it creates a balance between the creative and the abstract. Sometimes, scientists need to commit too deep, abstract thought about electrons and atoms zipping around; other times, we need to focus on concrete work.

When I have designed an experiment, I go in the lab and use my hands to potentially find new compounds.

I wouldn’t want to be thinking deeply or sitting in front of a screen all day. However, I wouldn’t want to be handling stuff without a deeper understanding of what we’re doing. That balance is really important to me.

What is a typical day like for you at NuChem?

First, I go on the computer and research literature and design an experiment. The question is normally: “What kind of conditions do I need to make a gram of this chemical?”

I look at examples of people who have made similar chemicals before and read their procedures. Then, I figure out a way to test the most likely procedures to work as fast as possible on a small scale, and get the result as fast as possible.

If an experiment goes well, it’s left overnight. The next morning, I see what’s happened in what I left running overnight. Then, there’s analytics.

In a worst-case scenario, we might need to extract and purify everything to see what happened, which takes longer. Testing a reaction on a batch you’ve been working on for weeks is the moment when the scientist meets the harsh laws of reality!

It must be an amazing feeling when you overcome that challenge…

It’s the best! As a scientist, the best feeling you can have is when you correctly predict reality – even if it’s in the smallest or most insignificant experiment. You make all these drawings, these models, these approximations and you wonder: “Is this real? Or is this just something in my head?”

Then you predict something, you test it in real life and it works! It’s the most exciting thing.

In your career, what other kinds of problems have you helped to solve with chemistry?

At one point, I was trying to find more environmentally friendly wood preservatives. That was a problem that could be solved with new chemistry, and it was an exciting part of my career.

There are a lot of things in our society that rely on chemistry and could be improved with chemistry – from the environment to drug efficacy. No matter how things may change, we’re still going to need chemistry to make things better and cleaner, while trying to reduce negative effects. I am really happy to have fallen in love with this field!

What you like most about working at NuChem?

I like the level of scientific freedom we have here. You have specific goals, but the way you reach those goals is up to you. That’s something that’s really important for me.

The projects we have are never easy enough to be boring. We aren’t doing the same reactions hundreds of times or always working the same way. I think that aspect is getting better as we grow too. Clients are sending us harder projects and that keeps it challenging.

We also have the proper tools, budgets and chemicals to solve complex challenges. You never have to waste your time fixing a machine. You come into the lab, the machine always works and you spend your time doing chemistry. Our time and thinking are spent on the actual science, not worrying about the tools around it that make it work.

Would you ever consider leaving the lab for a management position?

That’s a question I think about a lot! At the moment, I prefer working in a lab.

Everybody knows what it’s like to spend days in meetings or in front of computers. But not many people know what it’s like inside a lab, mixing things that fume together or change colours, or making a crystal. It’s like magic.

In my job, I not only make sense of chemistry – I live it. It brings out the kid in me, and I’m not sure I want to let go of it yet. Of course, that might change as I get older.

Do you have a motto or personal mantra that motivates you?

My motto is that the only times the human brain comes alive are when you love and when you learn.

That is what drives me. We should always reach for new things and be curious – even if it’s about tiny chemical properties or compounds that nobody cares about! Coming to work and leave knowing something new keeps me excited, focused and interested.

In your opinion, what does the future look like for drug discovery?

I think we are going to have to learn a lot about new techniques in biologics. Ideally, we’ll be able to integrate new small molecules to help make new therapeutic approaches work.

Small molecules are still the simplest and most studied way to flip switches in the body. I think the interesting thing is we are going to see small molecule drugs used as tools in other, more complex therapies, especially in the treatment of cancer.

What is your advice for a young person considering a career in chemistry?

Find a subject that really drives you, because chemistry can be long, hard and frustrating sometimes!

When you look at articles in the media about new scientific discoveries, this work probably took years and years. In addition, there were other people who worked for years to help shape that discovery.

Find pleasure in answering questions too. The questions may seem insignificant, but before you asked it, we didn’t have an answer. That’s what should drive you and that’s what you must remember when you’re overwhelmed.

Outside the lab, Éric regularly enjoys reading fiction and fantasy. His favourite quote is from a book by author Patrick Rothfuss, which includes a scene in a chemistry class where a student declares that the most important things to do are “label clearly, measure twice and eat elsewhere.”

“When I’m immersing myself in a different universe, and a version of my own reality is shown, it makes me really happy,” Éric says. “Science is the closest thing we have to magic in the real world.”

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