Summa cum laude for Wilmer Leal

Published Dec 14, 2022

Congratulations to Wilmer Leal! His exploration of the chemical space has earned him the highest honor that can be achieved for a PhD thesis – summa cum laude. Wilmer is a member of both the Bioinformatics Group of Peter F. Stadler at the University of Leipzig and the research group of Jürgen Jost. We all are incredibly proud!

Read on for Wilmer's thoughts about his research and plans for the future.

I am an explorer of chemical space, a conceptual space where substances lie and connect with each other through chemical reactions. The observed chemical space is a hypernet consisting of all substances and reactions reported throughout history, as well as their properties. We model different aspects of chemical space using mathematical structures and investigate their dynamics as they grow with the substances and reactions discovered every day. In my thesis, I explored different levels of description of this space: its evolution over time, its curvature, and categorical models of its compositionality.

My vitae and career plans

I got a degree in Chemistry (with a thesis in theoretical chemistry) and then a second degree in mathematics (with a thesis in analysis). Both degrees were obtained with distinctions at the University of Pamplona in Colombia. Then I worked as a researcher at the Colombian Institute of Immunology, where I developed programming and data analysis skills. After that, I returned to the University of Pamplona to lecture in the Department of Mathematics and apply for a Ph.D. position. I received a scholarship from the DAAD and moved to Leipzig to start my Ph.D. at the University of Leipzig. I ended up having two great supervisors, Peter Stadler and Jürgen Jost, with whom I capitalized on my background in chemistry, mathematics, and computer science and produced a thesis on formal structures of chemical knowledge. We got very exciting results that are having a great impact on the chemical and mathematical community.

From the chemistry side, I was selected to attend the 71st Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting dedicated to chemistry. There, along with some of the world's most talented young scientists, I had the honor of talking and learning from around forty Nobel laureates for a week.

From the mathematical side, I was selected to participate in the Mathematical Research Communities, the flagship school of the American Mathematical Society for early career mathematicians. We were brought to New York in May 2022 to start research projects in applied category theory. There I discussed my ideas on how to categorically capture the different ways compositionality presents itself in chemistry and how to relate the underlying categorical structures to model the way chemists reason when planning the synthesis of substances. For these ideas, I was offered a very generous postdoc position at the University of Florida with James Fairbanks, who is using category theory and its implementations to model systems of reasoning.

I plan to move there in January 2023 to develop these ideas further into what I would like to call: categorical chemistry.

Portrait of Wilmer Leal and his colleagues
Wilmer and his colleagues
Portrait of Wilmer Leal with Jürgen Jost
Wilmer with Jürgen Jost
Portrait of Wilmer Leal with Peter Stadler
Wilmer with Peter Stadler