Connor Coley named 2018 DARPA Riser

Author: Melanie Miller Kaufman | Department of Chemical Engineering

The U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has honored Connor Coley, who is currently pursuing his graduate degree in chemical engineering, as one of 50 DARPA Risers for 2018.

The award states that DARPA Risers are considered by the agency to be “up-and-coming standouts in their fields, capable of discovering and leveraging innovative opportunities for technological surprise — the heart of DARPA’s national security mission.”

Currently a member of the Klavs Jensen and William Green research groups, Coley is focused on improving automation and computer assistance in synthesis planning and reaction optimization with medicinal chemistry applications. He is more broadly interested in the design and construction of automated microfluidic platforms for analytics (e.g. kinetic or process understanding) and on-demand synthesis.

The goal of many synthetic efforts, particularly in early stage drug discovery, is to produce a target small molecule of interest. At MIT, Coley’s early graduate research focused on streamlining organic synthesis from an experimental perspective: screening and optimizing chemical reactions in a microfluidic platform using as little material as possible.

But even with an automated platform to do just that, researchers need to know exactly what reaction to run. They must first figure out the best synthetic route to make the target compound and then turn to the chemical literature to define a suitable parameter space to operate within. As part of the DARPA Make-It program, Coley and his colleagues started working toward a much more ambitious goal. Instead of automating only the execution of reactions, could a researcher automate the entire workflow of route identification, process development, and experimental execution?

Coley’s recent research has focused on various aspects of computer-aided synthesis planning to help make a fully autonomous synthetic chemistry platform, leveraging techniques in machine learning to meaningfully generalize historical reaction data. This includes questions of how best to propose novel retrosynthetic pathways and validate those suggestions in silico before carrying them out in the laboratory. The overall goal of his work is to develop models and computational approaches that — in combination with more traditional automation techniques — will improve the efficiency of small molecule discovery.

“It’s been a privilege to participate in the Make-It program and I am grateful for being named a DARPA Riser,” Coley says. “I’m excited to take part in the D60 anniversary event and talk about my ideas for how this work can be extended to more broadly transform the process of molecular discovery.”

Coley received his BS in chemical engineering from Caltech in 2014 and is a recipient of MIT’s Robert T. Haslam Presidential Graduate Fellowship.

Coley will participate in D60, DARPA’s 60th Anniversary Symposium, Sept. 5-7 at Gaylord National Harbor. D60 will provide attendees the opportunity to engage with up-and-coming innovators, including some of today’s most creative and accomplished scientists and technologists. DARPA works to inspire attendees to explore future technologies, their potential application to tomorrow’s technical and societal challenges, and the dilemmas those applications may engender. D60 participants will have the opportunity to be a part of the new relationships, partnerships, and communities of interest that this event aims to foster, and advance dialogue on the pursuit of science in the national interest.

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