Q+A: Dr Igor Alabugin, Fulbright Scholar

Fulbright logoIn January, Dr Igor Alabugin joined the Department of Chemistry as a visiting Fulbright scholar. Igor will be spending six months working with Prof. Nick Williams to investigate the role of orbital effects in phosphate transfer reactions.

The Alabugin group is based in Florida State University. Their research is focused on the discovery of new ways to control molecular structure and reactivity, and they have recently published a paper in Angewandte Chemie on the use of radical alkyne peri-annulations for the synthesis of functionalised aromatics.

The Fulbright Scholarship is a highly competitive program designed to facilitate international collaboration between U.S. academics and those abroad. We talked to Igor to find out why he chose to come to the University of Sheffield, and what he’ll be doing during his six month stay.

What made you choose to come to Sheffield?

With its very strong traditions in chemistry, the University of Sheffield is an ideal place for my Fulbright stay. It has an internationally renowned chemistry department with world-class faculty and a rich history. It also has a connection to FSU as a place where my former FSU colleague Sir Harry Kroto was a student. I am interested in establishing lasting contacts and collaborations between the Florida State University and the University of Sheffield.

Could you give a brief summary of your research, what you're working on with Nick?

I have broad interests in many fields of chemistry. My work includes theoretical and computational chemistry, experimental design of organic reactions, synthesis of carbon-rich molecules and materials, transition metal catalysis of organic reactions, chemistry in plasma, electron upconversion, organic photochemistry, reagents for double-strand DNA cleavage, and biorthogonal chemistry. I keep learning about new fields by serving as a peer-reviewer for ~80 journals.

My general interest is in connections between molecular structure and reactivity, which led to the publication of a book on stereoelectronic effects in 2016. A recent ACIE review recommended this book “to every chemist and particularly to every student…”! In my lectures in the UK, I will discuss the role of orbital interactions in the formation of cyclic structures and the redesign of the famous Baldwin rules for cyclizations.

In addition, Fulbright will help me to extend stereoelectronic ideas to one of the most important reactions of biology, the phosphate group transfer. Together with Professor Nick Williams at the University of Sheffield, we will test for the role of orbital effects in phosphate transfer reactions. I am looking forward to the opportunity of venturing into a new research field.

How are you finding living in Sheffield?

Living in Sheffield gives me an opportunity to immerse myself in the UK’s rich scientific and cultural heritage. I personally love that there are so many connections to Harry Kroto in Sheffield, from the C60-shaped chandelier in the City Hall to the Kroto Institute, and to a plaque just outside of my office! When Harry was my colleague at FSU, I enjoyed having conversations with him over a cup of coffee at the faculty lounge. Each time when I see a reminder of this remarkable man, it makes my day better.

I appreciate the network of public transportation and an opportunity to walk to work, instead of driving for miles. On the way to university I see beautiful historic buildings, cosy coffee shops, musicians on the street, and energetic student crowds. I enjoy hearing bells in the evening instead of the usual tropical chorus of cicadas and frogs. Florida is mostly flat while Sheffield is rather hilly – more exercise opportunities!

I also find the history of Sheffield and, especially, its connection to steel industry fascinating. I was born in Siberia in a city that produced ~25% of Russian steel during World War II. Many of my relatives were steel plant workers. When I see the word “Bessemer”, my first mental connection is to the process for converting molten pig iron into steel rather than to a pub in the Fountain Precinct.

Beyond the city itself, there are many great places around Sheffield – obviously, the Peak District, and also several interesting cities within a short train ride, which make the perfect destinations for weekend excursions.