The Sceptical Chymist | Reactions: Richard Payne

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Richard Payne is in the School of Chemistry at the University of Sydney, Australia and works on the synthesis and biological evaluation of peptides and proteins containing post-translational modifications and the development of new drug leads for the treatment of neglected diseases (tuberculosis, malaria and African sleeping sickness).

1. What made you want to be a chemist?

There were really two reasons why I chose chemistry as a career. I first became interested in chemistry due to an inspirational high school teacher who joined my School after years working as a research chemist at a fertilizer company in New Zealand. His passion for chemistry was infectious and I really enjoyed learning from him. I still vividly remember his collection of chemistry-based ties and his love for explosive experiments; potassium in the swimming pool and dry ice bombs (the latter getting the attention of the special police). While studying Chemistry at the University of Canterbury, New Zealand, I had a summer job cleaning fridges rented out to students during the academic year. After three weeks of scrubbing out mouldy fridges, I received a call from a Professor who asked if I would be interested in joining his lab to carry out a paid research project for the remainder of the summer.  I loved doing research and spent long hours working away on the project which culminated in my first publication. I couldn’t believe that someone was willing to pay me for something that I would have done for free. It was from this moment that I knew I wanted to be a chemist.

2. If you weren’t a chemist and could do any other job, what would it be – and why?

10 years ago I would have liked to have been a footballer (soccer player). I played at a reasonable level in New Zealand and the UK until the end of my PhD in 2006. Now, I would chance my arm as a Vintner. Obviously there is still a lot of Chemistry behind the perfect drop, but people would benefit from my labour in other ways to my current role as a chemist!

3. What are you working on now, and where do you hope it will lead?

There are a number of exciting projects underway in my research group. If I had to choose two to share: 1) we have recently discovered a number of small molecule antimalarials that are more potent than chloroquine and have a novel mode of action to currently available therapies. We hope to optimise these compounds further and hopefully get compounds that enter pre-clinical studies; 2) we have recently prepared a number of variants of a full length protein by total synthesis that differ by their glycosylation state. This has enabled us to determine the effect that glycosylation has on the structure and function of the protein.  We hope to use this approach to study the biological role of glycosylation on other proteins which may have important implications for understanding disease and for the design of protein therapeutics.

4. Which historical figure would you most like to have dinner with – and why?

I would have to say Sir Winston Churchill. He was not just an inspirational leader (in very tough times) but he had many other talents including a Nobel Prize in literature. I would like to ask him how and why big decisions were made (good and bad) and how he knew when the timing was right.

5. When was the last time you did an experiment in the lab – and what was it?

My last experiment was in May 2011 (the last entry in my lab book). I was attempting to convert a C-terminal peptide thioester into the corresponding C-terminal aldehyde via an aqueous Fukuyama reduction.  Unfortunately it didn’t work very well (probably because I got distracted by teaching and administration duties and let the reaction stir for a week!). After this I decided that I was setting a bad example for my students so decided to hang up my lab coat. However, I now enjoy meeting with my group members to discuss their research projects, design experiments and helping solve problems.

6. If exiled on a desert island, what one book and one music album would you take with you?

Assuming I would be there for a long time I would take a book to learn French. I have always wanted to learn a new language but have never found the time. I would love to go to France and converse in the language rather than speaking English in a French accent! For music I would take an Arcade Fire album. – probably Funeral.

7. Which chemist would you like to see interviewed on Reactions – and why?

I would like to see Professor Clifton Barry III from the NIH, Maryland interviewed. I have never met him but have followed his work closely and I admire his collaborative approach to drug discovery research. He has made significant impact and a number of breakthroughs in understanding the biochemistry of Mycobacterium tuberculosis enzymes and in tuberculosis drug discovery. His group has been involved in the discovery of two new antitubercular compounds in phase II clinical trials.

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