La Trobe Masters student disproves long-held practice in chemistry during lockdown

If you’d asked LIMS Associate Professor in Chemistry and Physics Dr Jason Dutton this time last year if it was possible for a synthetic chemical Masters student to complete their degree remotely, while at the same time debunking the science behind a long used chemistry practice, Jason would have made an analogy to pigs flying.

But 2020 has not been a typical year. COVID-19 restrictions meant learning and research has had to change… and rapidly.

Never one to shy away from a challenge, Jason saw the opportunity to move the work of his Masters’ student, Tania, into computational chemistry – something that can performed remotely from the laboratory.

There’d been a theory that the Dutton lab had held for the past five years, that although the chemical PhI(OTf)2 has long been used as a strong oxidant in organic chemistry, it did not actually exist. Over the years a project begun by Dr Mohammad Albayer (who went from MSc student to PhD student to Lecturer during the course of the project) the Dutton lab had dabbled in attempts to prove the theory with no concrete results. With the break in lab access in March, Jason saw an opportunity – to train Tania in computational chemistry with the intent to break open a gap in the theory.

Working with the zest of an emerging scientist set disprove a common practice, Tania enthusiastically embraced the challenge of learning computational chemistry at home. From scratch.

In a remarkably short time Tania achieved the key results that broke the project open, showing the generation of PhI(OTf)2 is uphill in energy.

But the story didn’t end there. The Dutton lab had to reinforce the computational results with lab-based experiments. Postdoc, Dr Sevan Houston, used his limited lab time to finish key experiments based on Tania’s contributions. PhD students Tiffany Poynder and Lachlan Sharp-Bucknall, with one day’s notice and a ten day deadline – compounded by limited lab access – were able to perform key experiments required for the paper’s review to conclusively prove that PhI(OTf)2 does not exist. This was a true team effort under the most difficult of circumstances.

Jason remarks “I could not be prouder of my team. Together we’ve not only survived the restrictions caused by COVID-19, we’ve thrived.” He continues, “Our Masters students have been able to complete their degree, our PhD students have continued their doctorate and best of all – we’ve published a paper disproving a long-held practice in chemistry.”