Q&A with Mark Lautens, Order of Canada honouree

The Governor General's office announced 95 appointments to the Order of Canada on Friday. Among the honourees, two researchers were listed as residing in Hamilton, but there are others on the list with Hamilton connections. CBC Hamilton caught up with one.

U of T chemistry professor and Hamilton native made an officer of the order

Mark Lautens, a chemistry professor at the University of Toronto and a Hamilton native, has been made an officer of the Order of Canada. (Supplied by Mark Lautens)

The Governor General's office announced 95 appointments to the Order of Canada on Friday. Among the honourees, two researchers were listed as residing in Hamilton, but there are others on the list with Hamilton connections. CBC Hamilton caught up with one. 

Meet Mark Lautens, an organic chemistry professor at the University of Toronto and a Hamilton native. He was among the 13 people made officers of the Order of Canada, one of the order's three levels. It recognizes service and achievement on a national level. 

Q: You currently teach at the University of Toronto and you live in Toronto. What's your Hamilton connection?

A: I lived in Hamilton until I was about 21. My mom lived there. She died about 15 years ago. I would go back to Hamilton all the time. I feel like a Hamiltonian. 

I went to Guelph as an undergraduate student, then I went to Wisconsin for PhD, and then I went to Harvard after my PhD for two years as a postdoc. Then I came to Toronto and I've been there since 1987. 

Q: You were born and raised in Hamilton?

A: That's right. I grew up on a street called Tragina Avenue. It was near Barton Street. And I went to W.H. Ballard Public School. Then I went to Glendale Secondary School. 

Q: Tell us about the story of your favourite Hamilton barber. 

A: I met my barber when I was 15 and have continued to use his services for 40 years through grad school in Wisconsin and a postdoctoral at Harvard. My now-18-year-old son and I continue our trek to Hamilton every six to eight weeks. And after Fred Bertrano retired, we meet at his house in his basement shop. So I guess I am a crazy Hamiltonian.

Q: You are recognized for your "contributions at the forefront of organic chemistry, which have led to the creation of new medicinal compounds with fewer side effects." Walk us through your research. 

A: The "side effects" part is slightly inaccurate. I think a slightly more accurate description would be … what we try to do is invent new chemical reactions or ways in which to make pharmaceuticals. And our interest is to try to do that so we produce less waste, so they're more efficient and with less environmental impact. Because whenever you are manufacturing pharmaceuticals, there's waste and so on. And the idea for us is to minimize that and have the lowest impact on the environment. So we're trying to add to the toolbox of how people make drugs. 

Q: What are the applications of your research?

A: The real-life applications would be either in a pharmaceutical company — there are medical chemists who are trying to discover new drugs, they would use our reactions to try to make the new drugs. Another part of the pharmaceutical business is, once you know what you want to make, you try to make it as cheaply and efficiently and low environmental impact as possible. So we hope people will use the reaction to do that. 

The thing that's difficult to explain to people is … what we are trying to do is to make a tool that anybody in the pharmaceutical business can make, in principle, any kind of drug. So it's more general than it is specific. We have targeted certain chemicals and pharmaceuticals over the years. This is just to show how it would work. 

Q: Do you work with a team?

A: All the work is done with the students. When I first found out from the Governor General's office that I've been awarded this, at one point, I said, "For what?" One of the reasons is because I thought it would say something in the description of the honour about training the next generation of scientists. Over the years, hundreds and hundreds of students have worked with me. And many of them now work at universities all over the world and pharmaceutical companies. There're a lot of people from my lab who are now professors in Canada. About 150 PhD students and postdocs and maybe about 200 or 300 undergrads and visitors have worked with me. 

Q: You were made an officer of the Order of Canada. How does it feel to be in the ranks of Mark Carney, Julio Montaner and so on?

A: Part of the intrigue, once you got the call from the Governor General that you were selected, is the other question, "Who else got selected?" When you see someone's name like Mark Carney and you just think, "Wow, I'm in some pretty selective company." And I'm very humbled by that for sure. 

The interview has been slightly edited for length and clarity.  

Established in 1967, the Order of Canada is one of the country's highest civilian honours. It recognizes outstanding achievement, dedication to the community and service to the country. 

The three levels of the order are companion, officer and member. 

The recipients will be invited to accept their insignia at a ceremony. The date of the ceremony will be announced later. 


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