Welcome in your new role at EuChemS!

Elena Badea is the new Chair of the Working Party of Chemistry for Cultural Heritage. She is a Professor at the University of Craiova, Romania.

Marko Štrok is the new Chair of the Division for Nuclear and Radiochemistry. He is a Head of Laboratory at the Jožef Stefan Institute, Ljubljana.

Maite Maguregui is the new Secretary of the Working Party of Chemistry for Cultural Heritage. She is a Professor at the University of the Basque Country UPV/EHU.

Antonia Denkova is the new Secretary of the Division for Nuclear and Radiochemistry. She is an Associate Professor at the Delft University of Technology.

Interview with Sílvia Osuna, recipient of the 2021 EuChemS Lecture Award

Could you share your thoughts on Receiving the EuChemS Lecture Award?

I feel very honoured to receive such a distinction. I’m still struggling to believe that I’ve won it. It’s a real honour. I was awarded this honour at a moment which was very important for me: I was recently on a maternity leave, and I was going back to work when I received the award, trying to catch up on many things. This prize gave me a lot of energy and motivation to keep going and keep fighting.

You work on designing enzymes that catalyse reactions in synthetic processes. Can you briefly introduce us your research and its significance?

My research is focused on the design of new enzymes using computational tools. This is important because enzymes are catalysts: molecules that are able to accelerate chemical reactions. Enzymes are catalysts that we have in our body for instance – so all the reactions take place thanks to enzymes. Enzymes are not only very efficient, they are also highly selective and specific, and they operate under very mild conditions so they have numerous advantages. If we could design enzymes for whatever reaction, that could have a major impact in our lives. For designing enzymes, you can use experimental techniques, such as the powerful Directed Evolution, and also more rational methodologies. In my group we develop new computational approaches for rationally and efficiently designing enzymes. This is challenging – but at the same time, very interesting.

What attracted you to chemistry, and to this specific area of research?                   

Since High School, I really liked chemistry and biochemistry – I found both of these subjects very interesting, so I decided to take up on studying them at university. I really enjoyed the degree, where I also had the opportunity to do some research projects at the Institute of Computational Chemistry and Catalysis – this is where I learned about computational chemistry. I decided to do my PhD on this field. My PhD programme was about using computational chemistry to study fullerene – so no enzymes at this point. During my PhD, I visited the Houk Lab at the UCLA where I learned about computational enzyme design, which just began to develop into an important field at that time. I decided that I wanted to do my post-doc at the Houk lab, to study this new area – this is the whole story.

You are also a talented painter. Can you share a few words about your artistic activities?

Chemistry is something that I really like – but I also really enjoyed painting since my childhood. I was often wondering about whether I should follow a scientific career or an artistic one. Either way, it is something I very much enjoy, and I think this artistic side is also very good for my scientific career. Although I have to get a lot of work done so I don’t paint that much these days, I know it is something that will always be there – perhaps when I retire, if no sooner.

Do you feel that your scientific and artistic activities influence each other, or you consider them as separate?

I think they’re very complimentary. While I have mentioned that I don’t paint that much at the moment, I really enjoy doing figures for papers, and presentations with visual results. I pay a lot of attention for the “artistic parts”, such as the colors and positioning. I like creating figures that are self-explanatory. So, I rely on my artistic side for these illustrations, and it really helps to get my point across. We say this thing in Spanish: one image is worth 1000 words – so if you create a nice image, it helps people understand.

We would be glad to hear about your achievements. Is there a moment in your career that you are especially proud of?

What I’m very proud of is the following: in computational enzyme design, the focus is usually on the active site where the reaction happens and mutations are introduced in that area. What I wanted to do was to develop tools that not only focus on the active site, but try to predict positions far away from it. We proposed a tool that we call the “shortest path map”. With this tool, we could actually identify a list of positions that have an effect on the enzyme activities. I consider this a great achievement. And I think it’s one of the key findings of my ERC project.

The other thing is enzyme conformational dynamics. Enzymes are not static, they have multiple structures, and in a way, all these structures are important for the enzyme function. Usually, the design process was made using one single X-ray structure of the enzyme. Something that we have been working on along these years is understanding these different conformations and trying to develop computational enzyme design approaches that pay more attention to this conformational ensemble.

And about challenges – can you tell us what challenges do you face in the world of chemistry, and how do you overcome them?

As computational chemists, we run simulations, we develop computational tools and of course we always need the experimental validation – which I completely agree with. But people often question the validity of our results. While I totally understand – I am the first one that says, of course, this needs to be tested experimentally – but, experiments can also be incorrect. Computational chemistry is not the only thing that should be validated. However, in many ways I think the field is changing and evolving now, thanks to machine learning – and with that, people’s mentality will also change.

The other is to combine all the scientific work with family life. I’m a young woman, and I have young kids. This in itself, is already a big challenge.

As we’re heading towards the end of this interview, do you have a message to our readers?

Well, I like very much a quote from the painter Salvador Dali. He said “Have no fear of perfection – you’ll never reach it.” We can keep on in working hard, we should try to do as much and as good as we can. We can keep fighting, without needing to be perfect – which we’ll never be.

Interview with Sílvia Osuna, recipient of the 2021 EuChemS Lecture Award
Conducted by Marton Kottmayer, EuChemS Science Communication & Policy Officer