The Don McKenzie Paul Thesis Prize 2023 is awarded to Harrison Laurent from the University of Leeds for his work on the effect of the organic osmolyte TMAO in extremophile organisms in high salinity and high-pressure water environments – and the ensuing insight into how extremophiles survive on Earth and how they may survive on other planets.
The Don McKenzie Paul Thesis Prize is awarded in recognition of a successfully examined PhD thesis in which the use of neutrons plays a significant role in addressing a scientific challenge or, alternatively, the thesis describes notable development of neutron instrumentation or techniques.
The prize is named after Don McKenzie Paul (1953-2019), a condensed matter scientist and professor at the University of Warwick known for his work in neutron scattering. The award is coordinated by the Neutron Scattering Group, a joint Interest Group of the Institute of Physics and Royal Society of Chemistry.
This year's winner, Harrison (Harry) Laurent, used neutrons during his PhD research at the University of Leeds, part-funded through an ISIS facility development studentship, to investigate a range of aqueous solutions. He combined neutron diffraction, modelling, and NMR to investigate perturbations to water in aqueous potassium halides and demonstrate the links between structural, dynamic, and thermodynamic properties of these systems at the molecular level.
Using neutron diffraction, Harry determined that the model biomolecule glycine self-assembles into dimers and trimers, even in concentrated Mg(ClO4)2 solution, due to hydrogen bonding interactions. This work has important implications for the limits of life and demonstrates that crucial biomolecular hydrogen bonding can persist in extreme Martian mimetic conditions.
Harry expanded this work to look at the structure and dynamics of aqueous solutions of Mg(ClO4)2 and trimethylamine N-oxide (TMAO). Using neutron diffraction and NMR, he showed that TMAO is capable of partially resisting the pressurising effect Mg(ClO4)2 causes to water structure, with the two molecules acting in structural opposition.
Harry went on to examine the structure of pure water and aqueous TMAO at low and high pressure using the NIMROD instrument. He used the neutron diffraction data to understand the ability of TMAO to resist pressure denaturation of proteins. His custom-built analysis showed that increased pressure reduces the thermodynamic stability of bulk water – water hydrogen bonding and that TMAO can enhance this bonding. This work was the second most engaged-with article featuring research performed at ISIS in 2022, featuring in 16 news articles and 6 blogs, including Nature Reviews Chemistry.
His work has picked up significant interest, including being included in the “2020 PCCP HOT Articles" collection and being the focus of a public engagement event at the Leeds Be Curious festival, which attracts ~1200 members of the public.
As well as being invited to speak at international conferences in the USA and Europe, Harry was also awarded the Water@Leeds Supporting Postgraduate Research to Inspire the Next Generation (SPRING) award. This led to the commissioning of an animated video explaining his research to a general audience, featured in the 2022 “Leeds Light Night" event.
“Harry is an exceptional scientist and on an upwards trajectory as a leader in neutron science," says his PhD supervisor, Professor Lorna Dougan from the University of Leeds.
“Harry Laurent is one of the brightest and most productive PhD students I ever had the pleasure to work with. From the outset he was keen and ambitious," added Dr Alan Soper, FRS. “Overall, I would say this was a very successful PhD thesis, with at least five publications emerging so far. That output was due almost entirely to the complete dedication that Harry put into his work, coupled with his keen awareness of what are the key questions that need addressing."