Science Talk: TSRI and the 2001 Nobel Prize in Chemistry
News&Views asked individuals at The Scripps Research Institute
(TSRI): What was your first reaction when you heard that W.M.
Keck Professor K. Barry Sharpless had won the Nobel Prize
in Chemistry? What are your other thoughts on the award?
Bartfai, professor of neuropharmacology
I was at home. In the morning I knew that it would
be announced in Stockholm (it's always the same time)
I looked [online]. I didn't see the final text, but
I checked the wording. The wording is very importantit
says "the prize is given for this" and only that. And
it's also important because it means that nobody else
can get the prize for this later.
This prize has been in the works for a long time.
Asymmetric synthesis, to which all three of them have
contributed. My initial reaction was that it was nice
that this was donethat it's out of the way. There
are prizes that are expected by many, but there is only
one prize per yearno more, no less.
I was relieved and I was glad. Each year, you think,
"Is this a good prize?" One should think that all of
the prizes are given for outstanding achievement. And
this is true. And I don't want to belittle others, but
this is a very good prize. Nobel was very interested
in practical applications and the fact that [Sharpless's
work] is used now in the manufacture of several marketed,
clinically useful drugs is a strong argument.
A friend, a colleague [from another university] said
to me, "Do you see him often?" and I said, "Not often
Antonella Converso, fourth-year graduate student in
the Sharpless lab
We were very pleased and excited. We all thought it
would happen, we just didn't know when. It is an incredible
feeling to work in a Nobel Prize-winning lab, to share
The award is great publicity for TSRI: now everybody
who watches the news will know it's a great place for
science. For sure it will help attract new high caliber
graduate students. Barry is a captivating figure; his
enthusiasm is amazing.
The lab has been inundated with phone calls, faxes
and lettersfrom past group members, colleagues
and people he has never heard from before. The lab received
more than 100 envelopes just yesterday afternoon, not
to mention the hundreds of emails that flooded Barry's
Eschenmoser, professor of chemistry
I was at home. My wife told me. She had a phone call
from one of her friends, who knew. This was no surprise
to me that it was Barry who got the prize.
As a matter of fact, a few days before my colleague
and I had lunch together, and he asked me who is going
to get the Nobel prize in chemistry. I said, "No problem
we have him in our house [TSRI]." And on the day it
became known, my colleague came again and said, "How
did you know?" He suspected that I had secondary channels,
and I had to convince him otherwise-it was pure insight
into the scientific merits nothing else.
There is no doubt that Sharpless's contributions to
organic chemistry are indisputable as Nobel-worthy works.
[I say this] for two reasons: first, it's a well defined
contribution, and second, its impact is enormous. It
influences the everyday work of a large number of organic
chemists. And scientifically, it is absolutely original.
It is a chapter in the struggle of organic chemists
to acquire the capability of doing synthesis via enantioselective
Sometimes people stumble upon something important,
but I happen to know that Sharpless is not a stumbler.
He systematically planned his research over years, following
the dream of being able to do such a thing. Actually,
every chemical invention is, at the same time, also
a discovery. Sharpless's inventions are induced discoveries,
not stumbled upon, discoveries.
[Barry] could be called the most chemical chemist,
because intuition is such an important part of what
he does. One way of [describing] his intrinsic originality
is to note that he is one of those people who is absolutely
unpredictable in what he is going to say. With many
normal people you can predict what a discussion
is going to be. Not with Barry.
Fokin, assistant professor in the Sharpless lab
We knew it was going to happen one day, but the news
was still a tremendous surprise. It is definitely well-deserved.
Excitement was my initial reactionand it still
continues. On a bigger scale, [the Nobel Prize] is a
recognition not only of Barry's achievements but also
of the significance of the area of chemistry which he
pioneered. It's exciting to be a part of it and to work
with Barryhe is infinitely enthusiastic about
The lab is currently working on projects related to
catalytic oxidation of olefins as well as applications
of the products afforded by these oxidations. The latter
is a logical continuation of what was developed before.
We now have excellent methods to selectively convert
olefins to new, more reactive intermediates. It is time
to learn how to use thembe it searching for biological
activity or new materials. We've prepared libraries
of diverse compounds and, in collaboration with colleagues
from the institute, screened them against various biological
targets, uncovering very interesting leads. But all
projects in our lab have a common goal: discovering
new, efficient ways to make functional molecules.
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