The Backer-KNCV Prize

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.

The jury adds an ex aequo honorable mentioning of the runner-up theses:
– Pieter Gillessen: Molecular motor-functionalized porphyrin cages and
related compounds
– Zeshli Li: Chemo-enzymatic synthesis of O-acetylated sialosides and
their unnatural analogs to probe virus-glycan interaction
– Johan Pijnenborg: Development of substrate based inhibitors targeting human glycosylation
– Jim Voorneveld: Synthetic peptides, nucleic acids and molecular probes to study ADP-ribosylation

Award winners of previous years

2021, dr Mira Holzheimer:’On the Total Synthesis of Archaeal and Mycobacterial Natural Products’

2020, dr Thomas Hansen: ‘Glycosyl Cations in Glycosylation Reactions’

2019, dr. Kananat Naksomboon: ‘Bidentate ligand-promoted Palladium-catalyzed C-H olefination of aromatic compounds’

2018, dr. Michael Lerch : ‘DASA Donor-Acceptor Stenhouse Adducts’

2017, Dr. Albert Wong: ‘Synthesis of out-of-equilibrium reaction networks’

2016, Dr. Mu-Chieh Chang: ‘Formazanate as a Redox-Active, Structurally Versatile Ligand Platform’

2015, Dr. Massimo Giannerini: ‘Advancing selectivity control with highly reactive organometallic reagents’

2014, Dr. Lianne Willems: ‘Direct and Two-Step Activity-Based Profiling of Proteases and Glycosidases’

2013, Dr. Danny Geerdink: ‘Total synthesis of enantiopure lipids on mycobacterial glycolipids and a putative sex pheromone of Trichogramma turkestanica

2012, Dr. Marthe Walvoort: ‘On the reactivity and selectivity of donor glycosides in glycochemistry and glycobiology’

2011, Dr. Dennis Waalboer:  ‘Synthetic Studies on Terpene Natural Products’

2010, Dr. Wim Noorduin:  ‘Single Chirality Through Crystal Grinding’

2009, Dr. Martin Witte:  ‘Activity-based profiling of glycoconjugate processing enzymes’

2008, Dr. Hans de Boer: ‘Cis-dihydroxylation and epoxidation of alkenes by manganese catalysts, selectivity, reactivity and mechanism’

2007, Dr. Robin Bon:  ‘Development and Application of Novel Multicomponent Reactions using a-acidic Isocyanides’

2006, Dr. Rienk Eelkema:  ‘Liquid Crystals as Amplifiers of Molecular Chirality’

2005, Dr. Sander Kluwer:  ‘Palladium-catalyzed stereoselective hydrogenation of alkynes to (Z)-alkenes in common solvents and supercritical CO2

2004, Dr. Xuemei Li:  ‘Catalytic Approaches to Nanolithography’

2003, Dr. F.M.H. de Groot:  ‘New Approaches in Selective Chemotherapy with Tumor-Activated Prodrugs’

2002, Dr. ir. Leonard Prins: ‘Non-covalent Synthesis of chiral Hydrogen-bonded Assemblies’

2001, Dr. Martin Albrecht: ‘Sensors, switches and catalysts: New applications of organometallic materials’

2000, Dr. Maurice van Eis:  ‘Small meatcyclophane: New challenges and new surprises’

1999,  Dr. Felix Beijer:  ‘Bouwen met waterstofbruggen’

1998, Dr. H.P.M. Huck: ‘Chiroptical Molecular Switches’

1997, Dr. Evelien Rijnberg: ‘Zincates and Zinc Thiolates: Structural Aspects and Enantioselective Catalysis’

1996, R.A.T.M. van Benthem: ‘Palladium cluster gekatalyseerde oxidatieve cyclisaties’

1995, Dr. P. Timmerman: ‘Molecules with rigid cavities by combination of calix[4]arenes and resorcinares’