Why he’s a 2019 Top 40 Under 40: He harnesses biological principles to accelerate molecular discoveries that may one day save lives.
When he was a child in Ukraine, Ratmir Derda wanted to build a telescope. He was fascinated with astronomy, and he wanted to get a closer look at the stars in our sky. After reaching a step in the construction process that required him to coat a mirror with a silver-based solution, his parents, a civil engineer and concert performer, told him he’d learn all about the chemistry required a few years later in school.
“I was probably the only kid anxiously waiting to start chemistry,” laughs Derda.
But by the time he got to the material that would help him coat a mirror for a telescope, he had already found a new passion — the International Chemistry Olympiads. International success in the high school Olympiads led him down the path toward a career in chemistry and chemical biology, a field in which he remains to this day. To understand chemistry better, he even did an undergraduate degree in physics. Now, he “tries to connect the world of molecules to other worlds like biological evolution, artificial intelligence and big data,” and is working on the fringes where chemistry, physics and biology intersect. “I’ve carried the passion for chemistry throughout my life, but I’ve always looked for excuses to connect it to other areas,” he says.
His company, 48Hour Discovery, uses the evolutionary principles of biology to help accelerate molecular discoveries. “What if the next drug can be discovered as quickly as doing a Google search?” he asks. “We use the principles of evolution and natural selection to help discover new molecules that might end up becoming medicines that save people’s lives.”