The King of Synthesis

Jeff Kerkovius
January/February 2016
CLASS DISTINCTION

University of British Columbia Okanagan undergraduate Jeff Kerkovius wants to create molecules that change the world. 

Jeff Kerkovius of Kelowna, BC had an especially precocious predilection for chemistry. At age eight he asked his grandparents for a special Christmas gift: baking soda and vinegar, “so I could mix them together.” His grandparents indulged the request and Kerkovius embarked upon happy days creating rumbling volcanoes and spewing pop bottles. “It bubbled. I was fascinated. It was the coolest thing I’d ever seen,” says Kerkovius. He eventually graduated to mixing random household chemicals found under the kitchen sink — somehow managing to avoid creating a toxic reaction. “I was always making a giant mess,” he says. 

Later in high school, Kerkovius, now 23 and an honours chemistry undergrad at the University of British Columbia Okanagan (UBCO), realized that his early fascination with reactions was evidence of a real knack for chemical synthesis. Since those early days of experimentation, Kerkovius’s synthesis has become increasingly sophisticated, bringing him numerous awards and recognitions and two pending publications in the journals Synthesis and Organic & Biomolecular Chemistry. It has also drawn the admiration of professors such as UBCO assistant professor of chemistry Fred Menard, who remarked that Kerkovius is the kind of student who comes along “once in a decade.” 

Kerkovius’s university undergrad career got off to an unusual start. A talented cross-country skier who aspired to race in the Winter Olympics, Kerkovius was selected to join the Callaghan Valley Training Centre in Whistler, BC from 2011-2012. Competing for Canada from coast to coast and in the United States was fun “but I realized I was missing chemistry.” During these two years, he set up a chemistry laboratory in his parents’ garage, complete with fume hood and a variety of glassware, taught himself organic chemistry and undertook increasingly elaborate experiments. This included the synthesis of a fluorescent polyaromatic hydrocarbon called rubrene that Kerkovius used to make yellow glow sticks. 

Kerkovius made a choice: chemistry over skiing, even though some friends asked, “are you nuts?” Once immersed in his studies, Kerkovius threw himself into research. One project was synthesizing novel pyrazole-based anti-inflammatory drugs. His research ramped up in 2014 as he undertook the synthesis of novel fluorescent calcium channel labels, working in Menard’s lab for the ultimate purpose of synthesizing molecules to study proteins that play a role in the development of Alzheimer’s disease. Kerkovius undertook a related study for his honour’s thesis, making a more advanced labelling molecule that is still under development. This molecule has advantages over conventional labelling techniques, which can alter the function of a target protein, he says. 

Kerkovius also worked on the synthesis of an isomer of an unnatural amino acid — meaning it is not one of the 20 amino acids necessary for life — for analysis in mass spectrometry experiments. The amino acid, beta-Methylamino-L-alanine (BMAA) is an environmental neurotoxin produced by cyanobacteria and linked to the neurodegenerative disease amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS). 

As a result of his work, which includes facilitating twice-weekly Supplemental Learning tutoring sessions, Kerkovius received four accolades last year. These included the UBCO Undergraduate Researcher of the Year Award, the Irving K. Barber School Undergraduate Research Award, the UBCO Provost Award for Teaching Assistants and Tutors and the 2015 Western Canadian Undergraduate Chemistry Conference Oral Presentation Pedagogy Award. 

This spring, Kerkovius will finish his undergraduate degree. He hopes to head to McGill University and the chemistry lab of Jean-Philip Lumb. “I want to become a professor with an organic synthesis group which uses the molecules we make to solve a real-world problem. There’s just something irresistible about making a molecule and saying, ‘I made this.’ ”