On Polish-Italian scientific cooperation and chirality - a conversation with Prof. Marcin Górecki

Starting a series of interviews with successful scientists who at the same time can boast of international Polish-Italian cooperation, we include a conversation with Professor Marcin Górecki, a long-time employee of the Institute of Organic Chemistry of the Polish Academy of Sciences. In recent years, he has received scholarships that enabled him to develop his research work at the University of Pisa, and he agreed to tell us more about the research done there and the experience he gained. 

How much time did you spend on research in Pisa?

This was a total of 3 years under two mobility programs funded by the Polish Ministry of Science and Higher Education (MEiN, Mobility Plus, 2016-2017) and the Polish National Agency for Academic Exchange (NAWA, Bekker, 2019). In addition, at the Department of Chemistry and Industrial Chemistry at the University of Pisa, I also made two one-month research visits in 2018 and 2022 as part of the Visiting Fellow program offered by the University of Pisa for foreigners.

Was further scientific cooperation born during this time?

The mobility programs not only gave me the opportunity to collaborate with prominent scientists in my field - Prof. Lorenzo Di Bari and Prof. Gennaro Pescitelli, but also gave me the opportunity to participate in work addressing a wide variety of topics and research threads and ultimately develop the most interesting ones. This research was the basis for writing further proposals and planning further joint scientific publications.

And the friendships?

Knowledge of the Italian language undoubtedly made it easier for me to make acquaintances and friendships that continue to this day. 3 years - as I look back now - is really a raggedy time...! Several times my friends have already been to Warsaw, and I had the opportunity to show them the most interesting places in the capital.

What have been the results of Italian research under the MEiN and NAWA mobility grants?

The first project lasted 2 years (2016-2017) and was carried out under the Mobility Plus Program supported by the Ministry of Education and Science. The goal of this research was to find new chiral lanthanide complexes that could be directly applied, among other things, to the construction of modern organic circularly polarized light emitting diodes (CP-OLEDs). As a result of the research, we selected samarium complexes (Sm3+), which have very good optical and chiroptical parameters.

And the second mobility project was carried out in 2019 with funding from the Polish National Agency for Academic Exchange (NAWA) under the Bekker Scholarship. The goal of this project was to construct and demonstrate that a new mapping device (NanoCD) for a circular dichroism spectropolarimeter (CD) can be useful in solving important problems that arise during chiroptical analysis. We found that, with about 10 times the resolution of a traditional measurement, the device easily identifies a variety of domains on the surface of solid chiral samples. This observation prompted us to investigate further at the Diamond Light Source in the UK, where the most advanced chiral surface mapping equipment is located. As a result, we discovered that the observed solid-phase CD spectrum is directly affected by the anisotropy of locally aligned crystals, which brings a new quality to solid-phase CD measurements and opens a new chapter in the study of chiral compounds and materials.

What exactly is the concept of chirality?

Chirality can be most simply defined as the non-identity of an object with its mirror reflection. This is a very common phenomenon in everyday life, but we usually do not realize it, although we feel the consequences of chirality directly at every step. Take a look at your hands - they too are chiral! The left hand is a mirror image of the right, and vice versa, but one hand cannot be placed on top of the other, because the thumbs will always point in the opposite direction. And this is the feature of all chiral objects - they are very similar, but non-identical. For example, we say: 'right' or 'left' shoe... to somehow distinguish them, because they are not identical in principle, since they cannot be superimposed on each other by translation or rotation.

The same feature seen in the macro world around us is also observed in the micro world. It turns out that most of the basic chemical compounds in living organisms are precisely chiral - the basic 'bricks' of our body: amino acids, sugars, proteins, nucleic acids, are also chiral. This means that they exist in our body in only one form among two or more possible options.

When did your adventure in chirality begin?

Oh a very long time ago! In fact, I first encountered the concept of chirality in a chemistry lesson in the third grade of a general high school - it was 2001 then. Then, at the end of the second year of my studies (May 2004) at the Faculty of Chemistry of the Warsaw University of Technology, as a result of an amazing coincidence, I ended up as a student-trainee at the Institute of Organic Chemistry of the Polish Academy of Sciences and the Laboratory headed by Prof. Jadwiga Frelek, PhD, which dealt with the use of chiroptical methods for stereochemical analysis of organic compounds. And so began my history with chiral compounds and methods for their analysis, which is still ongoing.

What are you working on now?

Currently, the main goals of the projects I am working on are focused on the development of new methods and techniques for studying chiral compounds in the solid phase. Chiroptical methods give us a unique opportunity that other (sometimes complementary) methods do not have, and that is to give us the direct ability to see two forms of a chiral substance ('right' and 'left'), just as we see an object and its mirror image in the surrounding macro world. And this, in turn, gives us the tools to study and analyze various chiral compounds with remarkable sensitivity and precision and in a highly selective manner. Nowadays, most modern drugs as well as modern/future materials are based on chiral compounds, hence I conduct my research using systems that have application properties as model compounds. Now I am engaged in extending the method of distinguishing active pharmaceutical substances (APIs) exhibiting the extremely important phenomenon of polymorphism and solvatomorphism.

How did you work in Italy?

Very good - in Italy I feel like a fish in water! The scientific cooperation with the CD@Pisa research group at the University of Pisa was incredibly interesting for me, not only from the scientific side, but also from the cultural side. I had an amazing opportunity to live for more than 3 years in a country from a different cultural background, which made working in Italy always very interesting and developing for me.

Would you point out any particular challenges you encountered during your research?

Challenges often referred to as difficulties are perhaps quite natural. Given that the research conducted, particularly in the second project related to the development of a high-resolution mapping device, while yielding intriguing results, there were some difficulties in finding an appropriate theoretical model to explain and de facto predict the essence of the genesis of the measured phenomenon - CD at high resolution. In the end, thanks to cooperation with theoretical chemists, it was possible to look at each side of the issue taking into account different points of view, which eventually paid off by explaining the essence of the measured phenomenon.

How do you assess the possibilities of raising funds for research in Poland and Italy?

In Poland, we have national grant agencies (National Science Center, National Center for Research and Development, National Agency for Academic Exchange), which are direct executive agencies of the Ministry of Education and Science (MEiN) dedicated respectively to obtaining funds for basic research, applied research or foreign cooperation and academic exchanges. Over the past few years, the success rate in major competitions has been in the 20-30% range, giving scientists a real chance to win their own research funds. Unfortunately, the situation has deteriorated significantly in the last two years, causing the success rate in NCN, for example, to drop now to 10-15%, which now poses a major challenge for Poland's science policy, in terms of restoring the success rate to its previous - proper - values.
In Italy, on the other hand, there is a quite different system of science funding - in addition to ministerial grants, which are a challenge to get, there are grants allocated annually by universities to individual scientists based on their scientific achievements. In parallel, there are projects funded through regional competitions. Cooperation between various research groups and industry, as well as private sector research funding, is also quite common. In addition, and importantly, there is also a large share of European ERC grants, which not only shows the high level of work being carried out, but also the high efficiency and effectiveness of international collaborations of Italian scientists.

Why do you consider your Italian visits important for your scientific development?

I had a great working environment in Pisa, which resulted in more than a dozen joint publications in international scientific journals since 2016, and more are in the pipeline. The results of our joint research have been presented at more than a dozen international conferences in Italy, Poland, France and Germany. In addition, research activities at the University of Pisa have given me new ideas, crucial for future projects, as well as inspired me to apply for a grant for young researchers - 'Sonata' from the National Science Center (NCN), which was successfully funded in 2020. Interesting discussions also undoubtedly influenced the shape of my further work in Poland, giving me a look at existing scientific problems from a slightly different perspective. For example, I also had the opportunity to conduct research on an apparatus that is not available in Poland - a spectrometer for circularly polarized luminescence (CPL) measurements. In addition, I was able to learn about a different organizational culture of science, such as seeing how the work of a department or research group is organized, which is undoubtedly another added value.

Did you bring back from Italy any interesting habits, new foods, the way coffee is brewed, Italian phrases?

Certainly after my stays in Italy, my approach to Italian cuisine has changed, which I now admire primarily for its simplicity, as well as the clever ability to combine 3-4 ingredients that will then create a tasty and interesting dish. Now for me Italian cuisine is a cuisine of few simple ingredients with endless possibilities and flavors. Nowadays in Poland it is very easy to buy good quality original Italian food products, at a good price, much easier than it was even 5-8 years ago. It turns out that Italy is the third country from which Poland imports the most goods...
At home I often bake focaccia, I have several recipes from friends. It turns out that every region of Italy has its typical focaccia and each is different and has a long tradition. Coffee - preferably 2-3 times a day doppio from a coffee machine, and certainly no more americano, as it used to be. As for Italian phrases, I studied with great curiosity the meanings of various idioms and phraseological expressions and their use in the language, in the context of the differences in the use of analogous expressions in Polish.

And any non-scientific findings?

Very good question - one of my most interesting non-scientific discoveries was that our double Nobel laureate Maria Skłodowska-Curie began her first trip in Italy with Pisa. In the summer of 1918, with prominent Pisa chemists, she traveled to several thermal springs in Tuscany to study the level of natural radiation, and continued to travel with them to other places in Italy, where she studied highly radioactive water sources, among other things. The University of Pisa now even has original materials from that visit, which I had the opportunity to view.

Thank you for the interview!

And I thank you for the invitation!