skip to content

Yusuf Hamied Department of Chemistry


The new normal: Steve skyping with his PA Jacqui Worster from his home computer

On Monday the 20th of July, Professor Steve Ley celebrated a personal milestone: his 888th paper was published online exactly 50 years after the publication of his first research paper in synthetic chemistry.

“Isn’t that a wonderful number?” he says, with obvious delight.  “888 is about as lucky as it gets.”

Steve’s first paper, published on the 20th of July 1970, was based on the research he was doing for his PhD at Loughborough University with supervisor Harry Heaney, who is an Emeritus Professor of Organic Chemistry there.

“That was part of my thesis, and it really opened up a whole new area of research for our group. What we were doing was looking at the complicated structural rearrangement of molecules, so we were changing the molecular architectures in a single chemical operation:  something that hadn’t been done quite like this before using these compounds.”  

“The ability of molecules to redefine their architectures is topical even today,” he says, noting that it’s similar to the work Professor David Spring’s group does on diversity-orientated synthesis. “Back then it was unusual because it was a complex rearrangement process – and we didn’t have the sort of advanced equipment we have today. It was a new field and it was a very productive time for our group.”

Science has changed a lot in the intervening 50 years, but some things are still the same. “I’m still an organic chemist, I still love making molecules,” says Steve. “There was always something to discover, and that hasn’t changed one bit.”

After completing his PhD at Loughborough, Steve did postdoctoral research at Ohio State University with Professor Leo A. Paquette (who is now best known for achieving the first total synthesis of the Platonic solid dodecahedrane in 1982). Steve returned to the UK in 1974 for further research at Imperial College with Sir Derek Barton, who had recently been awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry.  Steve went on to become Professor of Organic Chemistry and Head of Department at Imperial, before being lured to Cambridge in 1992 as BP (1702) Professor of Chemistry, a post he held until 2013.

Although he has officially reached retirement age, Steve continues to conduct research, and runs a small research group here in the Department.

One of the things that has changed, he says, is the sophistication of the analytical tools. “The equipment and instrumentation we use has become so much more powerful. Early in my career, we didn’t have personal computers, we did all our calculations long-hand; we didn’t have ChemDraw so we had to hand draw all the structures ourselves. We did have NMR machines but they were only 60 Mhz compared with 1000 Mhz today.  And, we had to blow our own specialised glassware.”

“The analysis levels are so much more advanced and data collection today is massive compared with the way it was back then,” he says. “Organic chemistry is a lot of hard work – but machines today can do thousands of experiments where previously you could typically do and analyse one or two reactions a day – now we stack them up.”

“There’s new science in our labs every day, and the magic of discovery hasn’t changed,” he says. But he notes: “Back then we were target-focused, now we are much more concept-focused in what we do. Our depth of understanding has become much greater; we rely more on fundamental knowledge – we look today for new types of reactivity, whereas back then we were relying more on traditional rules and skills and using them in an interesting way. Today, because of our analytical tools, we are braver and more ambitious in the studies we set up. We can ask bigger questions.”

The other key difference is the speed of communication of research, says Steve. “The dissemination of our work happens so much more quickly. Countries used to work in a more insular way, but we’ve become international very quickly – what we do on our bench today could be picked up by anyone across the world tomorrow – there is virtually instant access.”

Steve hails this as a very positive development. “The more you share with people, the more you learn. I learn something new every day – even in lockdown! I still pick up new things, talk to people, and every single day there’s some element that you learn, a further piece of knowledge. It’s a wonderfully evolving and very creative subject. You’re making molecules and doing things that nobody’s ever done before. I mean, how good is that?”

Steve predicts that in the next ten to 20 years, the data handling and management of what the organic chemists do will ramp up again and again, especially with the development of Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning techniques. “The evaluation tools are improving and changing as well – it’s not just about collecting data but about how you use that data in a positive fashion.”

Despite these advances, chemists still need to think. Steve quotes Nobel Laureate Robert Grubbs, who said at Steve’s 70th birthday symposium: “You don’t have to work all the time, but you have to think all the time.” Steve says: “I thought that was a fabulous quote. Our machinery gives us a bit more time to organise, plan and think about the science. Machines won’t replace chemists.  In fact, you will need more chemists because you’ll have more ideas to explore.”

One of the things that has brought great joy to Steve over the years has been his students. “My students are my collaborators, and I love every single one of them. It’s one of the most important elements of my career. I’ve had over 250 postdocs and nearly 200 PhD students (keep up the good work Ollie!) – these are the people I work with and they’re the ones who make the difference.”

He also likes to point out that 32 members of his group became couples while working together in the lab (ie, more successful than other dating services!), and 42 of his previous students have become academics in the UK while numerous others are now captains of industry.

Steve’s 888th paper is on the generation and coupling of sulfonyl radicals. “These are not a very well-known species, but sulfones occur in many drug substances so the chemistry is useful to assemble these molecules – that makes it interesting.”

There is a link between his first and this latest paper: “I’m a molecule maker, and both papers were about making molecules.” He adds: “But the ability to be able to back up the ideas with theoretical calculations wasn’t available previously – it is today, and we can get answers more quickly. The first paper was about changing the chemical architecture of a molecule. Today we’re about making bonds – chemical steps that we were never able to do in the past.”

Why does he do it? “Look around the room you’re in – the computer you’re using, the clothes you wear, the colours around you – all of those are synthetic chemicals. It’s our understanding of chemistry that makes the modern world. There’s not one of us that has not benefited by the science that we do in our labs every day.”

“I still bubble with ideas, I’ve got lots of things I want to do. I haven’t lost any of my enthusiasm for science – I loved my first paper 50 years ago, and I’m just as excited by the paper that came out today.”