Johnny Wah Lee: My Next Great Impossible

Johnny Wah Lee

Organic chemist Dr. Johnny Wah Lee is on a quest to advance the discovery of novel organic molecules. He explains why sharing his passion with the next generation of researchers has been the most rewarding part of his career.

Expanding the boundaries of the known chemical space has been at the center of my Ph.D. work. My focus has been on establishing novel strategies to introduce perfluoroalkoxy (ORF) groups into organic molecules. Before my research, the lack of synthetic routes available to prepare ORF groups has prevented their utilization across pharmaceutical, agrochemical, and material applications. These compounds are especially desirable in modern drug discovery, where the incorporation of ORF groups can improve the potency, stability, and transmembrane permeability of new therapeutics.

“There are more potential organic molecules than stars in the universe.”

There are more potential organic molecules than stars in the universe. Yet, so far, our exploration of the chemical space has been confined to a relatively small region, with only 182 million compounds currently reported in the CAS Registry. Within this vast unknown space is every possible medicine and material. Hence, my work in discovering novel organic molecules is, in some small way, contributing to solving humanity’s biggest challenges.

“I believe chemistry is a force for creating a better future…”

The most rewarding moments of my research career have been supporting students in their growth and development. As an educator, I have been lucky enough to share my passion for organic chemistry. I believe chemistry is a force for creating a better future, and I hope my work will inspire future chemists to continue pushing the boundaries of discovery.


Q: What kind of mindset do you need to achieve the Next Great Impossible?

A: I have had many failures and setbacks in the lab. Keep an open mind and treat every experiment as an opportunity for learning, either by design or by chance.