Dr Wade Petersen’s research aims to develop environmentally friendly and sustainable ways for synthesising biologically active molecules that can be used for new drugs. An innovative scientist from the UCT Department of Chemistry, Petersen was recently awarded one of the inaugural 2019 Future Leaders – African Independent Research Fellowships.
1. When did you first realise that you wanted to be a chemist?
When I was very young, probably around eight years old. I used to watch Bill Nye the Science Guy on television and knew instantly that I wanted to wear a white lab coat and play with chemicals all day. Admittedly, at the time, I specifically wanted to make things blow up! This turned into my parents buying science books and experiment kits, and I guess the rest is history.
We dream about something that is academically interesting, emotionally exciting, and at most times, impossible. Then go into the lab and make the impossible possible.
2. Can you explain your research in a nutshell?
The fight against disease is an ongoing battle, and the increase in drug resistance makes this challenge even more daunting. It’s imperative that chemists design new and more effective molecules for drugs. It is also important to create them in an environmentally friendly and sustainable way. My research addresses both of these concerns by using cheap and renewable energy sources, such as light, for the development of newer and smarter molecules for drugs.
2. You’ve been described as an ‘experimentalist’. What does that mean to you?
To me, this means that we dream about something that is academically interesting, emotionally exciting, and at most times, impossible. Then go into the lab and make the impossible possible.
3. What are the biggest opportunities you see for your research?
In addition to developing active drug molecules, my research offers the potential to build low-cost industries that use sunlight energy as a key input for the creation of other important molecules – beyond just pharmaceuticals. And since sunlight is a resource that we are abundantly blessed with on the African continent, this could have a positive and significant effect our economy.
The more you question, the more you will discover. Nature is full of wonder, but it is not going to give up its secrets easily, so you have to be up for the challenge and accept that it’s not going to be an easy journey.
4. What advice do you have for young, future chemists?
Keep asking intriguing questions! The more you question, the more you will discover. Nature is full of wonder, but it is not going to give up its secrets easily, so you have to be up for the challenge and accept that it’s not going to be an easy journey. But keep fighting and keep working hard every day to make the impossible possible. The rewards will be worth it.
5. Why do you enjoy research?
It’s the stuff of dreams! Waking up in the morning with the most outrageous ideas that you dreamt about the night before, then walking into a lab and trying to make it happen is just exhilarating.
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