Professor Christoforos Kokotos, University of Athens, Greece, was awarded a Chemistry Europe Fellow earlier this year . Every two years, Chemistry Europe recognizes the exceptional commitment of members of the chemistry community with its highest honor. The Chemistry Europe Fellows Program was established in 2015.
Christoforos Kokotos was interviewed for ChemistryViews by Dr. Spiros Kitsinelis, Vice Editor of Chemica Chronica, the membership magazine of the Association of Greek Chemists. He talks here about his Chemistry Europe Fellow award, trends in chemistry, science communication, his career path, and how he manages to balance work and personal life.
What does it mean to you to be awarded a Chemistry Europe Fellowship?
In a world where internationality and cooperation are required to address current global problems, Chemistry Europe provides a platform to create links and bring together scientists to cooperate. Becoming a fellow is a really huge honor for me, especially looking back at Fellows of previous years. I can see some familiar names representing my “chemistry heroes” when I was in my first steps of studying chemistry, like K.C. Nicolaou and Nobel Laureates Sir Fraser Stoddart and Ben Feringa.
What do you think are the current visions for chemistry?
In my opinion, we are at a crucial crossroads to move chemistry beyond its traditional pathway. Climate change and its consequences have deemed it necessary to make a shift towards green and sustainable chemistry. Organocatalysis is one of the key innovations towards this direction. Photochemistry, electrochemistry, mechanochemistry, and continuous-flow technology have already started to change chemistry.
In my personal opinion, given the rise in demand for new, green, and sustainable processes, alternative methods for the synthesis of high-added-value chemicals and/or alternative energy sources will need to flourish in the next ten years. I think photochemistry is a field that has even more potential than organocatalysis. In its first decade of rebirth, the achievements of the field in academia and the already existing applications in the chemical industry show that it will evolve even more.
Which countries are coming up strong in terms of the quality of their universities, research opportunities, and being leaders in chemistry’s major developments?
I think, traditionally, the USA, Germany, and Great Britain have been recognized as countries at the forefront of chemistry during the last 30 years. However, in my personal opinion, within the last 20 years, China, Switzerland, and Spain have made significant advances towards this end. In the same spirit, other European countries are also making huge efforts towards this goal, and I hope that in the near future even more countries will try to do so, since we need polyphony in science.
Chemical societies that publish their own journals are faced with the question of whether publications in their national languages are still useful and important or whether they should switch to English. What do you think?
As we live in an international world, a common language is necessary for all scientists around the world to be able to communicate. However, I personally am in favor of what Chem. Eur. J. used to do, offering the possibility to authors to have the abstract of their work in two languages (English and the national language of the authors).
In which areas of chemistry will the human factor continue to play an important role and which will be overtaken by artificial intelligence?
In chemistry, we are still decades away from taking the human factor out of the equation. For the last two decades, A.I. has been applied in chemistry, and in the last few years, there have been major breakthroughs in automation and A.I.-mediated chemical processes. However, to my knowledge, it is still largely used to “automate” already known processes, verify experimental results, or help with a rational understanding of some initial experimental “hits,” like in drug design, where usually you have a successful result and then come to understand via A.I. why it works.
When A.I. is able to predict the appropriate “hit” (either catalyst or enzyme inhibitor, etc.) and experimental evidence comes later to verify it, or when new concepts are born via A.I., then we will start seeing the beginning of taking the human factor out of the equation.
How would you express to non-scientists the importance of science, and in particular chemistry, especially when they give negative connotations to terms such as ‘chemical’ or ‘synthetic’ while revering what is natural and untouched by scientists?
I would ask them to take a minute and consider how many of the things they use every day are “chemicals” or “synthetic” and how chemistry has improved their everyday life, considering the life people used to live 200 years ago. Drugs, everyday commodities, and so forth have improved the quality of life for all humankind via “chemicals” or “synthetic” chemicals. Although I do agree that we need to protect our planet and environment, and we have a long road ahead of us to undo the negative impact we as humans have had on our natural environment.
Science and technology are a way of life and come hand in hand with the wellbeing of the community and almost all of the major advances humanity has made. Better communication is needed for the general public to understand that the goal of every chemist, and scientists in general, is to provide a solution to an everyday problem of society. From discovering a new drug to creating a new and better energy converter, every chemist is trying to help society move towards a better future.
Which audiences are the most challenging to engage and which are the easiest?
Trying to communicate science to the general public without using scientific technicalities is the most difficult part in my opinion. This is something you need to practice and build on continuously. The audience that is the most challenging and at the same time the most interesting is children, since their innocence, coupled with their way of thinking and curiosity, poses some very difficult questions to answer!
In a world of fake news and journalistic oversimplification or stretching of the facts, what is your advice to journalists who cover the developments of science and your advice to people who read the news regarding sources and processing the material they find
Science is based on facts and experimental evidence. Speculation and/or the proposed mechanisms of actions come first in science, but only after vigorous experimental analysis can they become fact, and only then should they be publicly reported. Journalism and public reporting on scientific activities do not always work like this. Sometimes oversimplification or exaggeration of scientific achievements are made to attract the public eye.
I can see that sometimes very strong simplification can help the public understand some concepts better. But we do need to be careful not to give false hope to the public, especially with regard to some critical issues.
I think fake news and publicity stunts are something that no one wants, and we all need to minimize and slowly extinguish such approaches in the future. To do so, journalists should work together with scientists, so that scientists can better communicate their new exciting findings and journalists can find the appropriate means to communicate them. Cooperation on this interdisciplinary issue is necessary.
What are your favorite sources for chemistry/science updates?
I traditionally read chemistry updates from the journals and their websites. Although, over the last few years, I have also found social media to be really useful. Sometimes I get chemistry updates from those sources before reading them on the journals’ websites.
How and when did you develop an interest in chemistry?
I have had an interest in chemistry—and specifically in organic chemistry—ever since I can remember! A major factor in this was that both my parents are organic chemists. Throughout my childhood I was hearing discussions at home about the importance of chemistry and research. Although they never “interfered” in my personal choices, they did still play a major role in my choice of career.
What are you currently working on, and what are your research interests in general?
During my Ph.D. and postdoctoral studies, I was very fortunate to become acquainted with fields that today are considered hot in chemistry, like organocatalysis, photochemistry, continuous-flow chemistry, and electrochemistry. I started building my independent career working on asymmetric organocatalysis and trying to develop new organocatalysts and explore novel organic reactions.
These endeavors paved the way for the identification of new organocatalysts, which can activate small molecules like hydrogen peroxide to provide greener and more sustainable oxidation protocols. Organocatalytic oxidation activation of H2O2 was the key topic of research of my group for some time until we decided to incorporate light into our research.
Nowadays, organic synthetic photochemistry and the identification of small organic molecules that can mediate upon light irradiation—even sunlight—novel organic transformations, which may find application in chemical industries, is the main focus of my research.
You have had a very successful career. Would you like to share a favorite moment from your career or a memorable anecdote?
When I was at Princeton University working with Professor David MacMillan (Nobel Laureate in Chemistry 2021), there was a shared idea among the group that I learned from a good friend and colleague of mine, Professor David Nicewicz. This was that the best way to combat stage fright for talks to a large audience or a conference is to practice by getting “exposure” to karaoke nights, by singing in front of a group of strangers. I found that idea really clever, and judging from the results, it seems to work!
Which scientists, science communicators, or other personalities have had the biggest influence on you?
My biggest influences came from people I have worked with—like my Ph.D. supervisor Varinder Aggarwal and postdoctoral supervisor David MacMillan. However, among people I have not worked with, from the chemistry world I would definitely pick Professor K. C. Nicolaou, whereas from the non-chemistry world I would say my childhood role model, basketball player and hall of famer Nick Gallis, who reshaped the Greek sports map once and for all in the mid-’80s.
If you had to give only one piece of advice to younger chemists/scientists for a successful career, what would that be?
A quote from Alexander the Great: “There is nothing impossible to him who will try.” This is a motto that worked for me, and for this reason I am always saying it to all my group members or people who ask me for advice.
Besides chemistry, what else do you spend your time on? And, in closing, what is your advice to anyone for a successful and fulfilling life?&
It is really important to have a balanced life, and sometimes it is really difficult to combine research, which is never-ending, with personal life. For as long as I can remember, I have been a great fan of sports, especially soccer and basketball. I played soccer and basketball twice a week for many years, but during the last few years I have mainly been a spectator. After my time in the US, I added NCAA basketball March Madness and American football (NFL) to my watchlist.
Nowadays, I find walking to be really fulfilling. I do it every day for at least two hours, since it can also help to clear your mind or focus your thoughts. Finally, like most people, I like dining in different places and experiencing new dishes, as well as watching TV series.
Professor Kokotos, thank you for your time and interesting insight. It was a pleasure.
The pleasure was mine, Dr. Kitsinelis.
Christoforos G. Kokotos was born in Athens, Greece, in 1981. He studied chemistry at the National and Kapodistrian University of Athens and completed his Ph.D. at the University of Bristol, UK, in 2007 under the supervision of Varinder Aggarwal. After a postdoctoral position at Princeton University, USA, in the group led by Nobel Laureate David W.C. MacMillan, Christoforos G. Kokotos became an Associate Professor of Organic Chemistry in the Department of Chemistry of the National and Kapodistrian University of Athens, Greece.
His research interests focus on asymmetric organocatalysis, photocatalysis, and green methodologies on oxidation reactions.
 Chemistry Europe Fellows 2020/2021, ChemistryViews 2022.
Chemistry Europe is proud to honor its new Fellows for their support and contributions to the European joint publishing venture
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