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?


Tamas 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 important—it 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 done—that it's out of the way. There are prizes that are expected by many, but there is only one prize per year—no 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 enough."

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 moment.

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 letters—from 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 in box.


Albert 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 catalysis.

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.

Valery 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 reaction—and 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 Barry—he is infinitely enthusiastic about chemistry.

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 them—be 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.

Next Page | "I said, 'Barry Sharpless.' And she said 'yes.'"
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