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Pushing the boundaries of science

Pushing the boundaries of science

From setting things on fire (in high school) to her game-changing research on organometallics, Dr. Cathy Crudden talks about the never-boring world of chemistry.

[photo of Professor Cathy Crudden]
Bernard Clark

Cathy Crudden has never been someone who follows a straight path to her destination. Even walking to the playground as a child, she liked wandering off course if something interesting caught her eye.

“It’s the way my mom raised us. We always wanted to explore the weird and interesting stuff,” says Dr. Crudden, the Canada Research Chair in Metal Organic Chemistry at Queen’s. “Now I encourage students in my lab to take advantage of the opportunities they encounter and not get stuck in one area.”

That attitude still guides Dr. Crudden to this day. In fact, she credits this sense of exploration for one of her most significant research accomplishments. In 2014, Dr. Crudden and her team described the first example of well-formed carbon-based monolayers on metal surfaces. These new organic-on-metal coatings were shown to be much more stable than the original coatings first discovered in 1983, capable of withstanding heat, oxygen, and pH changes. International experts consider the findings “game-changing” with the potential to improve biosensors and microelectronics.

Our materials research – putting organic coatings on metals – all came out of being in a talk and asking, ‘Why hasn’t anyone applied this?’ We used our knowledge from our work in the area of catalysis and applied it to the metals and it has been amazingly successful,” she says. “It’s about taking chances, being bold, trying something new, and not being afraid to be wrong or admit you don’t know something. Even though I didn’t even know how to do the analysis, I went to one of my friends here in the Department of Chemistry, Dr. Hugh Horton, and asked his advice. He said, ‘That’s cool, let’s do it together.’”

Firing a passion

Encouraged by her mother, Cathy Crudden spent the summers of her youth exploring the forests near her home. She and her siblings would identify various flora and fauna on trips through the woods. She is still amazed she didn’t end up a biologist.

She credits that strong scientific upbringing for shaping her future career path. “My mother was always scientific in the way she approached everything with us,” says Dr. Crudden, recalling how her mother taught them to estimate how far away a thunderstorm was based on the speed of sound and the speed of light. Dr. Crudden’s passion for chemistry developed in high school. A young, exuberant chemistry teacher at Notre Dame High School in Toronto, Ms. Di Clemente, inspired the future chemist. “She was a really big influence on me. She would regularly set things on fire – on purpose, mind you. I remember some of the historical experiments she showed us that I thought were amazing,” she says.

She distinctly remembers Ms. Di Clemente discussing the Rutherford gold foil experiment. Early in the 20th century, Hans Geiger and Ernest Marsden, under the direction of Ernest Rutherford, tested the contemporary belief that atoms had equal distributions of electrons and protons. The team fired alpha particles at a thin film of gold, hypothesizing that the particles would penetrate the gold foil. Instead, what they observed was that some of the particles bounced back. The experiment led them to conclude that each atom has a small massive centre – the nucleus – surrounded by a vast amount of empty space.

“I loved the thought experiment,” Dr. Crudden says. “You have a hypothesis, you test it, and the results of the experiment tell you something. Often, the results are not what you expect. I always tell my students that any experiment done right gives you proper information. Even if the results don’t fit your hypothesis, that’s not a problem since you have learned something. It is often hard when the hypothesis doesn’t pan out, but I think we need to be less attached to our hypotheses. We need to focus more on the fact that we are learning something and advancing our understanding of science.”

After high school, she continued her studies in chemistry. Initially inspired by her high school teacher, Dr. Crudden chose to focus on chemistry at the post-secondary level because of its reputation as the “central science,” serving to connect the physical sciences with life sciences and applied sciences.

“We are high-level molecular engineers. A big part of what we try to do is use catalysts to control the organization and the three-dimensional structure of molecules, which can have a big effect on their properties,” she says.

“In other fields like biology, researchers will want to change this structure/function relationship. That’s where we can come in and say,‘Hey, we can do that.’ When we make those connections with researchers in other fields, we can really push the boundaries of science. And it’s a lot of fun.”

[photo of Cathleen Crudden on the move]
The sign behind Dr. Crudden says "Baggage claim" in Japanese. Photo: Bernard Clark

A risk-taker at heart

Cathy Crudden ventured into the unknown in new ways during her graduate studies. Her PhD supervisor’s lab in Ottawa had a strong international flavour, with most members hailing from countries outside of Canada. Dr. Crudden befriended several post-doctoral fellows from Japan and became interested in their country. When the opportunity arose for a three-month exchange in Osaka, she jumped at it.

To get ready for her exchange, she studied the Japanese language and read up on the culture. But all of that preparation went out the window as soon as she deplaned at Osaka’s busy Itami Airport after a 13-hour flight, and she had to gather both her wits and her luggage. Unable to read the signs, she did the first thing that came to mind: follow the crowd.

“One of the great things about going abroad is that you adapt and you learn. There are many challenges – even things as simple as finding your luggage at the airport – but you overcome them. Knowing that you lived in a pretty foreign country for three months and did well is great for building confidence,” she says.

Now, Dr. Crudden sends all of her PhD students – and many of her master’s students – on international exchanges. She wants to ensure that her students are challenged culturally while also building their research connections around the world. One senior PhD student, Mina Narouz, has worked on developing a compound to fight Striga, a parasitic plant that destroys food crops round the world. A clinical trial of the compound is currently underway in Kenya.

Dr. Crudden also understands that international exchanges can enrich her lab. “We needed to figure out to how to purify and crystallize gold nanoclusters so we could determine their exact molecular structure by a technique called single crystal X-ray diffraction. The world expert in this process, Dr. Tatsuya Tsukuda, is based at the University of Tokyo. I said to Mina, ‘You have already done one exchange but you are going back. Here is what I want you to do. If you get it to work the first day, take the next two months off.’ Of course, he worked extremely hard and accomplished even more than our original goals. In addition, he learned a lot of the techniques and brought them back to our lab and taught others.”

Dr. Crudden has maintained her connections in Japan over the years. She has operated a research lab within the Institute of Transformative Bio-Molecules at Nagoya University since 2013. She travels to Nagoya at least four times a year.

International collaborations are vital for Dr. Crudden’s current work in the area of nanoclusters. Expanding on her groundbreaking work from several years ago, the lab is developing films that are 50,000 times thinner than human hair and on nanoscopically ordered particles that feature bonds between metal clusters and organic ligands.

Any time her lab enters a new study area, Dr. Crudden pulls in experts from around the world. Some come to study with her in Kingston, like post-doctoral fellow Tetyana Levchenko, an expert in nanoclusters who hails from Ukraine. Dr. Crudden also has collaborators in Canada, Japan, and Finland for her current nanoclusters research project. “Collaborators are hugely important. The key to a successful relationship is building mutual respect,” Dr. Crudden says. “Trying to communicate across three time zones can be tricky. However, it’s also nice knowing that the work is going on 24/7 because of the time differences.”

#ChemTwitter and beyond

Technology has helped reshape and enhance international collaborations. Early in her research career before the internet and email became commonplace, Dr. Crudden actually had to travel abroad to have an international experience. Now she can share data and findings instantly with her collaborators around the world. Communication advances have also allowed Dr. Crudden to connect with people in the field and beyond. An avid Twitter user for several years, Dr. Crudden finds the platform useful for connecting with interesting researchers as well as younger students.

“I first came to know one of my current post-docs, Paul Lummis, online through Twitter. When I interviewed him he did stand out since I already recognized his name and I knew his views on many things and some of the chemistry he had done. He’s turned out to be a great hire so I’m delighted about that,” she says.

At the same time, Dr. Crudden isn’t afraid to step outside the world of #ChemTwitter and speak her mind on social issues. “I get angry when I see social injustices,” she says. “I think it’s important for people like me who have job security to take stands on important issues.”

On boron and boredom

“We are synthetic chemists at heart,” Dr. Crudden says of her lab. She finds it deeply satisfying to make molecules and manipulate them to change their function, in addition to discovering new and improved ways to make the molecules. “Molecules are like Lego. You want to take one block off here, and add one there, but they are so tiny that you can’t do it. You need to use metals, which act like our little hands that stitch the molecules together. We need to control the metal in order to control how it puts the molecules together.”

The members of the Crudden Lab currently use gold as their “little hands” to stitch together molecules. But it’s not cheap, and her students can feel a lot of pressure working with such an expensive material.

Dr. Crudden lists a less flashy element as her personal favourite. “I love boron. It’s a pretty weird element. I like things that have properties that you can’t necessarily predict because you learn something from them,” she says.

Identifying which elements she will work with – or even predicting the future direction of her research program – does not overly concern Dr. Crudden.“When we started this new materials work, someone told me he had no idea where I was going. And I took that as a huge compliment,” she says. “If I knew what I was going to be doing the rest of my life, I would find that incredibly boring.”

If I knew what I was going to be doing the rest of my life, I would find that incredibly boring.

That sense of adventure has landed Dr. Crudden several prestigious national and international chemistry awards. While appreciative of those honours, Dr. Crudden is just as happy to see her work cross over into other fields. “I am delighted that our work has gotten he attention of physicists and biologists. For me, that says I am affecting science more broadly, not just chemistry. When you make an impression outside your narrow discipline or field, that’s where you know your work is having a larger impact.”

Follow Dr. Crudden on Twitter

[cover image of the Queen's Alumni Review issue 3, 2019, showing art conservator Heidi Sobol with a painting by Rembrandt]