Dr. Wade Petersen: A Profile of a Future Leader in Science

Wade Petersen was only 8 years old when he decided that he would become a scientist. With his parents encouraging his dreams, this determined young man certainly followed through, culminating in him being recognised as a Future Leader by the Royal Society and the African Academy of Sciences.

This recognition comes with a 2 year ‘fellowship’ at the Academy and a research cash stipend of over R5 million. The fellowship is awarded to African scientists from across the continent by the African Academy of Sciences and the UK’s Royal Society, with support from the UK’s Global Challenges Research Fund. It is designed to help talented young researchers who have the ability to grow Africa’s scientific institutions. Only 30 scientists were picked from a pool of more than 700 applications.

Wade’s journey to becoming a future leader in science started when he was watching a kid’s science show, Bill Ney the Science Guy. The show made him realise that he wanted to wear a white lab coat, play with chemicals all day and more specifically, make things blow up. Realising that their little boy had a dream, his parents encouraged it by buying him kid’s science books and experiment kits.

After matriculating from Fairbairn College, he went to study chemistry at the University of Cape Town, eventually completing his PhD in 2015. Also in 2015, he was awarded the prestigious ‘South African Chemical Institute’ Postgraduate Medal. This particular medal is given to students “who have achieved either great academic success or made significant contributions to their particular field of chemistry”. In addition, he was also a ‘National Research Foundation’ Postdoctoral  Fellow from 2016  to 2017 at the University of York in the UK.

Wade is currently a lecturer and researcher at the University of Cape Town and his research focuses on making sure that the medicines that we receive are more effective in combatting diseases. He also tries to find ways to create new medical breakthroughs in a way that does not harm the environment.
More specifically, Wade designs new and more effective molecules for drugs in an environmentally friendly and sustainable way. One of the ways he does this is by looking at how the rays from the sun can be used to create more effective molecules for disease combating drugs. His work can also be used to solve other problems like electricity shortages and unemployment. On a continent like Africa, where sunlight is in abundance, his work could help find new ways to generate more electricity through the energy of the sun. This could lead to the creation of whole new industries which means that more jobs will be created.

Being a top rated scientist, Wade’s research papers have been published in science journals such as Organic Chemistry, Organic and Biomolecular Chemistry and Organic Letters. His research papers include ‘A Low Temperature Cross Dehydrogenative Metal Free Coupling Protocol for the Synthesis of 3,3-Disubstituted Oxindoles’, ‘Photoredox-Catalyzed Procedure for Carbamoyl Radical Generation: 3,4-Dihydroquinolin-2-ones and Quinolin-2-one Synthesis’, ‘Photoredox Catalyzed Reductive Carbamoyl Radical Generation Facilitates a Redox-Neutral Intermolecular Addition- Cyclization to Access Functionalized Lactams’, ‘Quaternized α,α-Amino Acids via Curtius Rearrangement of Subsituted Malonate-Imidazolidinones’, and ‘Stereoselective Formation of Quaternary Stereogenic Centres via Alkylation of Alpha-Substituted Malonate- Imidazolidinones’.

To those wanting to become scientists, he says that the key ingredient is to never stop asking questions.  The more you question, the more you will discover. He says that nature is full of secrets that still needs to be discovered but the only way to discover them is to ask questions and find answers. He advises that it will not be easy and the road to discovery is long and hard but when you discover something new, it feels exhilarating.

Had it not been for science, we would still be using candles and the idea of a lightbulb would still seem impossible. Wade’s job and the job of other scientists are to look at what seems impossible and make it possible. To many kids, becoming a scientist seems impossible but not so with the 8 year old Wade Petersen. His parents did not know whether he would become a scientist but they did tell him he could, and so he did.