Department of Chemistry, University of Toronto e-Distillations

Introducing Professors Mark Wilson and Andrew Beharry

We are pleased to welcome two new faculty members to Chemistry: Professor Mark Wilson (physical chemistry) and Professor Andrew Beharry (bioorganic chemistry) who both joined the department July 1, 2016.

How do we make a better, cheaper solar cell? Or an autonomous car not foiled by fog or snow? These are some of the questions fueling Mark Wilson’s research. A physical chemist who has joined the Chemistry faculty at the St. George campus, Wilson undertakes spectroscopic studies of excitonic systems for optoelectronic applications. Using lasers to reveal the rich behaviour of excitons—quantum energy packet that can store and transmit energy on the nano-scale—Wilson aims to enable new kinds of electronic devices. “We are a spectroscopy lab,” says Wilson, “but we are spectroscopists that study the complex systems that are relevant for real-world devices.”

One application that Wilson is exploring is detection of infrared light, something that is presently an expensive undertaking as compared to ubiquitous silicon-based digital cameras. To tackle this problem, he is creating films that can convert infrared light into visible light, piggy-backing on standard technology by enabling a visible camera to ‘see’ in the infrared. This could be commercially employed in a variety of interesting ways, says Wilson. For example, infrared cameras see more clearly through the fog, so an infrared camera deployed in an autonomous car could allow it to navigate better on a foggy day, or through a snowstorm – something that just might be relevant for operating an autonomous car in Canada.

Wilson completed B.Sc. and M.Sc. degrees in Engineering Physics at Queen’s University, where he also managed to fit in a B.A. in History before heading to the University of Cambridge in the UK for a Ph.D. with Professor Sir Richard Friend. On the other side of the pond, Wilson studied singlet exciton fission and, in two highly-cited papers, showed that this process is exceptionally rapid in exothermic conditions. Following this, Wilson completed postdoctoral work at MIT with Professors Moungi Bawendi and Marc Baldo, where he and his colleagues discovered that a novel combination of organic molecules and inorganic nanocrystals could interconvert low-intensity light between the visible and infrared.

In his own labs here at UofT, Wilson will be undertaking ultrafast and transient spectroscopies, and also fabricating many of the materials and systems that he is studying. His team is busy setting up a wet chemistry lab, starting to synthesize some quantum dots, and building up some of the spectroscopic characterization tools. They’re aiming to understand the complex behaviour of these nanoscale systems: measuring their absorption and emission spectra, and evaluating energy transfer. “I want to understand real systems in multicomponent devices,” says Wilson. By monitoring the entire suite of behaviour in these systems Wilson and his team hope to reveal new physics happening at the interfaces between materials, and suggest new architectures for devices.

Andrew Beharry’s work is driven by light too – but, as a bioorganic chemist interested in cancer applications, he is instead focusing on the development of new tools for the diagnosis and treatment of cancer.  These dual aims are a natural outgrowth of his PhD work, which he completed here at UofT Chemistry with Professor Andrew Woolley in 2012.  During his PhD, Beharry developed photoswitches for biomolecules and used them to manipulate cellular processes.  Now, he is using light-driven processes to detect and kill cancer cells.

In his first research aim, Beharry is developing fluorescent chemosensors that can be used for cancer diagnosis and drug screening.  During his postdoctoral work with Professor Eric Kool at Stanford, he developed fluorescent sensors for the DNA repair of human enzymes that captured the attention of cancer biologists, and launched a collaboration with Novartis that is ongoing. These probes are an attractive replacement for current techniques as they can be used in a high throughput format and provide answers on a much faster time scale. Motivated by the clinical connections of this work, in his own lab Beharry will be developing chemosensors that target enzymes in the epigenetic pathway. This work will help to unveil new ways for clinicians to assess the type of cancer a patient is facing, and the potential drug resistance that they might face.

The other area in which Beharry aims to make an impact is photodynamic therapy.  A treatment that utilizes a photosensitizing agent activated by light source to kill cancer cells, photodynamic therapy is already in use for several types of cancers, but its lack of selectivity means that it kills healthy cells too. Beharry hopes to change this and build greater selectivity for cancer cells by developing enzyme activatable photosensitizers that use small molecules and become activated in the presence of a cancer biomarker.

“The motivation is that the standard cancer therapy just doesn’t work that well,” says Beharry. “you can have 10 patients with the same type of cancer and maybe half will respond.”  It is his hope that his fluorescent sensors will allow clinicians to make better decisions about what treatments to use, and that improved photodynamic therapy will provide them with another treatment option if the standard chemotherapy and radiation treatments don’t work.

With such exciting research projects on the horizon, Beharry and Wilson are looking forward to getting the research underway. Both now have graduate students on board and are beginning to build up their labs.  “I find myself getting really, really enthusiastic when I talk to my student,” says Beharry, “and it’s a reminder of why I’m here – to be able to carry out research and to do it in the realm of training students.”

By Mandy Koroniak
Posted November 8, 2016