Jana Volaric wins the KNCV-Backer prize 2022
The KNCV-Backer Prize is awarded annually to the best PhD thesis in the field of organic chemistry that was defended in the Netherlands. The Committee consisted of Marthe Walvoort (Chair), Bauke Albada, Ronald Tennebroek and Rienk Eelkema; experts in a wide range of disciplines within the organic chemistry field.
In total, 24 theses were submitted this year. They were judged based on the scientific quality and their contributions to the field of organic chemistry, the impact of the research for science and society, and the clarity and structure of the thesis. The jury is impressed by the quality of all theses. From the first round in which each thesis was reviewed by two jury members, a sub-set of 5 theses was selected. After extensive deliberations, the jury has decided to award the 2022 KNCV Backer prize to Jana Volaric for her PhD-thesis titled ‘Water-soluble Azobenzene Photoswitches for Controlling Biological Systems’. The study was conducted at the University of Groningen under the guidance of Profs. Ben Feringa and Wiktor Szymanski.
As organic chemists, most of us perform the majority of our experiments in organic solvents. When aqueous solvents are required, for example to interact with biological phenomena, a paradigm shift in our thinking process is needed to make the experiments feasible and relevant. In her thesis, Dr. Volaric successfully forces this paradigm shift and explores the application of organic molecular switches to steer biological processes.
In her thesis, Dr. Volaric impressively combines expertise in detailed organic synthesis, photoswitching behavior, physical organic chemistry and supramolecular and biochemical investigations. Dr. Volaric engineered organic photoswitches, which are notoriously water-insoluble, to be amenable to aqueous environments. Using a variety of molecular strategies, she demonstrated the application of these switches is a wide range of biomolecular processes, including control over nanopore assembly, toxin activity, poly-Q aggregation, and sortase-mediated ligation. In addition, she developed a novel synthesis method to generate visible-light responsive water-soluble azobenzenes. The jury is also impressed by the first chapter, in which Dr. Volaric gives a detailed account of the possible strategies researchers can take to make their organic molecules water-soluble.
The outstanding quality of the synthetic work, the clearly written thesis, and the impact the results will have on the application of switches in biological systems convinced the jury to declare this thesis as the winner of the 2022 KNCV-Backer prize.