Always Seeking the Perfect Recipe

His work in organic chemistry has all sorts of ingredients, and his personal life does too: snowshoeing, travel and, of course, food.


Mark Lautens is a Professor of Organic Chemistry at the University of Toronto and a member of the Royal Society of Canada. He has published over 300 peer-reviewed articles and has collaborated with leading researchers around the world, such as Marta Cattelani, the discoverer of the Catellani Reaction.

We asked him everything from the rewards of being an educator to his dream of an alternate life as a world-class chef in hopes of giving you a better understanding of what goes on outside the lab for one of the best minds in Canadian research.

What do you like most about being a researcher?

The best part of being a researcher is watching the students develop to the point where they are running their own project and they know more than me about the subject. To see intellectual growth and increasing self-confidence in their ability to manage and be creative is incredibly rewarding.

Of course, it is also great to get unexpected results that are even better than what you were planning. The less you understand, the more exciting the possibilities. I like that I never know how my day will unfold and that I can combine science with travel and meeting friends who are spread around the world.

What advice would you give young researchers?

Ideas are easy to criticize so don’t take critical feedback too much to heart. Believe in yourself and your ability to find something useful, even it was not what you expected. Keep in contact with friends, your advisor and people you meet to build up your network.

Say thank you when people help you out and “pay it forward” by helping others. Some people are takers, and some are givers. You will feel better about yourself if you are a giver since at least you know you have your heart in the right place.

What inspired you to become a researcher?

I wanted to be a professor once I learned about the freedom to explore your own ideas and how unpredictable and diverse each day would be. I was given a chance to work in a research lab after my first year and I found the combination of lab work, interaction with other researchers, and the excitement of making a molecule that had never been made to be super exciting.

The more I read about my field the more interesting it became. Organic chemistry is part art, part engineering and part cooking, all in one.

What do you like to do for fun?

Perhaps I have too many hobbies! In the winter I love to ski. We go to our chalet every weekend and combine some downhill skiing and snowshoeing. I started quite late in life (40), so it has been a big uphill battle to become merely competent. Excellent is beyond my ambitions but I can still dream.

I also love hiking, biking and golf. Travel combining these interests, along with wine and food, is a perfect combination in my view.

What’s your favourite cuisine?

I have trouble narrowing it down, but regardless of the place of origin of the cuisine, what I like is to see a chef who is creative and artistic. I want to meet someone who is passionate about making food taste great and is presented in an appealing way. A truly great sauce on fish is one of the hardest things to achieve, so I am in awe of those who do it perfectly.

Certainly, French and Italian food are big favourites, but a wonderful meal in a stunning setting is always appreciated. Variety is also important; I have favourite dishes from Indian, Thai, Chinese, Japanese, German and Swiss cuisine. To some extent, it all depends on what I was doing prior to eating. Fine wine is an essential part of any great meal, at least for me.

If you could do any profession other than your own what would it be?

I often wish I could be a chef, though the hours are brutal, and the stress makes the job of a professor seem like a piece of cake (note food reference). Being able to make great food, and witnessing people enjoy every bit seems like a great job. Or a ski instructor – maybe I will try to do that when I retire.

If you could meet any historical figure, who would it be and why?

For science, I would choose Marie Curie. I find her passion for discovery to be amazing. For history, I would choose Leonardo da Vinci. What interests me is how he reinvented his life and constantly sought to gain knowledge in new fields. I wish I could do the same.

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