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Daniel Blair

University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

Daniel Blair wants to make organic chemistry, that blight on so many scientific GPAs, as simple as pushing a button.

It started in 2015, when a team led by Blair’s mentor, University of Illinois chemist Marty Burke, built a robot that could construct customized molecules by clicking together chemical building blocks like Legos. That opened the door to the automated synthesis of potentially useful drugs, but with one limitation: The technology could only construct two-dimensional molecules, meaning the more complex — and often more desirable — compounds could only be made in the lab by trained organic chemists.

At least until 2022, when a team including Blair, then a postdoc in Burke’s lab, came up with a process for push-button 3-D synthesis. Using some novel chemistry and a Rube Goldberg machine of catalysts and reagents, the scientists figured out how to churn out complex molecules with greater potential than their 2-D forebears. Now, as Blair sets up his own lab at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis, the goal is to pair that technology with software that allows for virtual drug design to create a chemical a la carte menu for researchers.

“That way, you’re looking at things that we know are makeable, not just screening molecules for the sake of it,” Blair said. “I think that really, significantly empowers us to interact with our colleagues who don’t have to know how to do chemistry anymore.”

That same concept of empowerment is foundational to Blair’s nascent lab, where, as a mentee turned mentor, he’s committed to “creating the kind of environment such that people feel safe to express what it is that they believe,” he said. It stems both from his experience in the lab and on the soccer pitch, where he’s played in pickup games with colleagues at every stage of his career, dating back to university in his native England.

“This idea came to my mind of, basically, sports team science,” Blair said. “Because when you look at these big sports teams, they don’t care where you come from or what you do as long as you do a good job. And that’s the way it should be.”

— Damian Garde