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Thomas Hansen

Assistant Professor at the Chemistry & Pharmaceutical Sciences Department VU

“People with different personal, cultural, and scientific backgrounds bring unique insights…the beauty of chemistry lies in its universal language of chemical structures, after all”

What is your area of expertise & why did you get into this area of research?

I really get excited by complex organic molecules and the chemical transformations required to construct them! I’ve always been curious by how nature has this molecular complexity that gives us impressive and daunting challenging synthetic targets. This makes me jealous of how easily nature can do all sorts of chemical transformations that seem impossible for us in the lab. Many natural compounds are usually difficult to synthesise in the lab due to our lack of the right chemical “tools” – the right chemical transformations. I believe that for us to develop new chemical transformations, we should begin with a better understanding of chemistry. In our lab, we do this with computational chemistry to help us understand the mechanisms of chemical reactions. The results from there can aid in the design of more efficient chemical transformations in the lab.

What inspired you to pursue a career in science, and how has that motivation evolved over time?

Well, it started with my curiosity. I love the feeling of doing experiments and stumbling upon countless surprises we never anticipated! Organic chemistry gives us so many dazzling challenges and problems, from purifying a stubborn compound to performing an elegant rearrangement reaction, to deciphering a messy NMR spectrum of a byproduct. Moreover, encouraging and guiding young chemists became something that really gave me energy. There are so many talented students out there, and seeing them improve and become more enthusiastic during their courses and internships is so rewarding and fun! As an assistant professor, I navigate a dynamic landscape, juggling various responsibilities, including teaching, research, mentorship, grant writing, outreach, and many more tasks. While this can be demanding, the diversity of activities fills my work with excitement.

How does your work contribute to addressing broader societal or global challenges?

Many of the new chemical tools being developed in our lab focus on catalysis. This key technology addresses many challenges in food production, health, energy transport, and climate. Chemical industries use this to produce over 80% of all goods, using minimal amounts of catalyst to convert enormous quantities of valuable chemicals. I am convinced that catalysis will play an even more significant role in the future, driving the development of sustainable chemistry for generations to come.

What role do collaboration and interdisciplinary approaches play in your work?

I see a lot of value in collaboration and interdisciplinary work, so I have certainly tried collaborating as much as possible. People with different personal, cultural, and scientific backgrounds bring unique insights to the table. The beauty of chemistry lies in its universal language of chemical structures, after all.

Tell us something we don’t know about you? Hobbies, interests…

Spending time in nature is something I truly cherish because it is where my mind feels most at ease. During weekends, I often go into the forests across the Netherlands for a hike, it’s a very refreshing activity for me. For vacations, I go places with scenic hiking routes. Some memorable trails I’ve explored include the Laugavegur trail in Iceland, the Cleveland Way in England, and the Eifelsteig in Germany. This summer, I’m going to Scotland to the West Highland Way trail! Certainly cannot wait!

About Meet the Scientist

Our Meet the Scientist series asks our amazing AIMMS talent to step away from their experiments and tell us more about themselves. From impact they want to make to their favorite hobbies, this is our chance to learn more about these inspiring minds.