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Chemistry prof wins McLean Award for his ‘sweet’ science

Photo of Professor Mark Taylor

University of Toronto organic chemist Mark Taylor. Photo: Sandra Strangemore.

Sugar has a bad rap. To most of us, it represents empty calories and a constant battle for the waistlines of the nation.

Lost in that narrative is the fact sugars are part of the basic building blocks of life and hold unlimited promise, says University of Toronto organic chemist Mark Taylor.

Studying oligosaccharides, for example, helps scientists understand how our cells recognize and interact with each other, and with pathogens. Chemical reactions that create oligosaccharides in the lab provide ways to probe or perturb these interactions, and could lead to the creation of future life-saving drugs. Sugars also hold promise as an alternative ingredient to make environmentally friendly polymers, replacing harmful petrochemicals in everyday plastics and resins.

“Sugars have a type of complexity that isn’t present in the molecules that make up proteins and DNA,” explains Taylor, the recipient of this year’s McLean Award. “Sugars can be connected to each other in different ways . . . and a change in their structure, changes their activity.”

The McLean Endowment, the result of $1-million gift to the university from alumnus Mr. William F. McLean two decades ago, is designed to support the work of an outstanding early career researcher in physics, chemistry, computer science, mathematics, engineering sciences, or the theory and methods of statistics.

“I’m very grateful and surprised to be the recipient of the McLean,” Taylor says, adding he thinks it’s important U of T has a prize that rewards people like him conducting basic science research.

With the university since 2007, Taylor is an associate professor and Canada Research Chair in the department of chemistry where he leads the 12-member Taylor Group, which focuses on synthetic methodology, and molecular recognition and chemical sensing in their campus lab at Lash Miller Chemical Laboratories.

He plans on using the $125,000 award, administered by the university’s Connaught Committee, to hire more graduate students to continue this work. Taylor’s ability to attract and train young scientists was one of the reasons the external review committee presented him with the award.

“I really enjoy working with graduate students,” says Taylor who did his undergraduate degree at U of T. “I think one of the most enduring legacies of any researcher is in the people they train.”

The panel was also deeply impressed by the potential global impact of where his research is headed: “Taylor is on the right curve to make a mark in organic chemistry in Canada and to become a leader in his age group on the international stage,” remarked one of the prize committee reviewers.

Their praise was echoed by Vivek Goel, U of T’s vice-president of research and innovation.

“Professor Mark Taylor is an excellent choice for this year’s McLean Award,” Goel said. “He is joining the ranks of 21 other distinguished University of Toronto faculty who have received the McLean to help pursue important research advances in select physical science fields and to train future scientific leaders.”