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On International Women’s Day we take a look at the work of three Chemistry researchers who are all making great strides in their areas of research.

Professor Susan Perkin studies ionic liquids – pure salts which are in the liquid state under ambient conditions. These behave very differently from other liquids such as salts dissolved in water (polar liquids) or oils (non-polar liquids), both of which are well-understood. Ionic liquids have a remarkable combination of physical properties:  they do not evaporate, they are electrically conducting, and they are miscible with other liquids. Using custom-made apparatus to study the behaviour of ionic liquids at the surface and in thin films, Professor Perkin’s group has revealed that they can have intricate arrangements of positive and negative ions. Learning more about the liquids’ characteristics enables them to be ‘tuned’ for particular applications. An important example is their use as electrolytes in energy storage devices, and another use is in engineering fluids, where ionic liquids can both lubricate and conduct.

Professor Perkin was recently awarded a prestigious starter grant from the European Research Council to develop her research in this area.

Dr Akane Kawamura is Royal Society Dorothy Hodgkin Fellow in Chemistry, and British Heart Foundation CRE Research Fellow in the Radcliffe Department of Medicine. She studies the molecular mechanisms of epigenetic processes – the external modifications that affect how cells are able to read and transcribe genes, without changing the underlying DNA sequences. One example of an epigenetic change is DNA methylation: the addition of a methyl group, or a ‘chemical cap’, to part of the DNA molecule, which prevents certain genes from being expressed. The major focus of Dr Kawamura’s current research is histone demethylases (KDMs), an important family of enzymes involved in regulating methylation on histone proteins. Dysregulation of KDMs are linked to many diseases such as cancers and ischemic diseases, and by studying their function the group ultimately hopes to be able to develop molecular techniques to control them and hence control the related diseases.

Dr Kawamura was also a recent recipient of a prestigious starter grant from the European Research Council.

Professor Kylie Vincent works in enzyme catalysis, investigating how bacteria use enzymes to harness the energy stored within molecules such as hydrogen, and how this could help build a more sustainable energy future. Industrial chemists are increasingly looking to natural enzymes to assist in chemical synthesis because enzyme processes are usually cleaner, more energy-efficient and generate less waste.

In many biological reactions a high-energy molecule called NADH is needed, but NADH is often more expensive than the chemicals it is used to synthesise. Professor Vincent’s group has found a new way of using hydrogen to recycle NADH so that it can easily be re-used. The catalytic system, called HydRegen [http://vincent.chem.ox.ac.uk/hydregen.htm], uses cooperative sets of enzymes mounted on easy-to-handle carbon beads, and provides a clean, efficient and cheap alternative to the approaches currently used to recycle NADH. HydRegen was one of the winners of the Royal Society of Chemistry’s 2013 Emerging Technologies competition, and has been the subject of considerable interest from the pharmaceutical industry. The group has recently received major funding from EPSRC via the Industrial Biotechnology Catalyst to further develop the HydRegen technology and move towards commercialisation.