It might be said that Erik J. Sorensen relishes taking on meandering pathways. His career as an organic chemist is centered on finding quick routes to complex molecules, a philosophy that nicely meshes with his passion for distance running.
After an injury dashed Sorensen's childhood dream of becoming a professional athlete, he discovered chemistry during his undergraduate years in Roger Hahn's lab at Syracuse University, where he received a B.A. in 1989. Sorensen then moved to the University of California, San Diego, where he pursued a Ph.D. with K. C. Nicolaou. There, he contributed to a total synthesis of Taxol and coauthored the book "Classics in Total Synthesis: Targets, Strategies, Methods" with Nicolaou. After earning his Ph.D. in 1995, he became a National Science Foundation Postdoctoral Fellow in Samuel Danishefsky's group at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, in New York City. He began his independent career at Scripps Research Institute in 1997 and moved his research group in 2003 to Princeton University, where he is the Arthur Allan Patchett Professor in Organic Chemistry.
Sorensen, 42, "is a pioneer in his field while being a true historian in the art of natural product synthesis. He is a scholar at the highest level," says his Princeton colleague David W. C. MacMillan, the A. Barton Hepburn Professor of Organic Chemistry. Sorensen's research merges that historical appreciation with modern chemical strategies and creative flair, MacMillan adds.
For example, Sorensen's group harnessed the strain-releasing fragmentation of a small ring, one of the earliest free-radical rearrangements reported in organic chemistry, with key examples dating back to the 1950s, to achieve the total syntheses of guanacastepenes A and E, natural products with potential antibiotic activity.
Furthermore, several of Sorensen's achievements rely on a reaction recognized since the 1920s, again early in the annals of chemistry—the Diels-Alder reaction. In particular, his colleagues cite his enantioselective synthesis of the natural product FR182877 (cyclostreptin) as a standout example of taking classical reactivity to new heights. Guided by a proposed biosynthesis, Sorensen's group showed that cyclostreptin's complex multiring structure could spontaneously emerge from a large single-ring precursor through a double Diels-Alder reaction. The work enabled basic research into cyclostreptin's microtubule-stabilizing properties at the National Cancer Institute. The achievement is "a brilliant and representative example of Sorensen's genius in the art of total synthesis," says Nicolaou, now the Darlene Shiley Professor and chair of the department of chemistry at Scripps.
"We look to nature for insights that might allow us to rapidly build complexity, but we're not dogmatically connected to bioinspired pathways," Sorensen comments. Indeed, a challenging synthesis puzzle motivated his group to build a new nitrogen-containing diene for use in the Diels-Alder reaction.
"All of Sorensen's achievements demonstrate the same spirit at work, one that makes the attempt to transcend purely chemical aspects of his science," says Albert Eschenmoser, professor emeritus at Swiss Federal Institute of Technology. In addition to his work in the total synthesis arena, Sorensen has delved into proteomics. In those efforts, he collaborated with Benjamin F. Cravatt of Scripps to build reactive molecular probes for exploring complex protein samples.
Sorensen has received many awards, including the 2001 AstraZeneca Award for Excellence in Chemistry, the 2001 Eli Lilly & Co. Grantee Award, the 2002 Pfizer Global Research Award for Excellence in Organic Chemistry, the 2004 Bristol-Myers Squibb Unrestricted Grant in Synthetic Organic Chemistry, and the 2005 Roche Award for Excellence in Organic Chemistry.
When he's not out for a jog or dreaming up creative chemistry, Sorensen tends to another hobby—playing the drums. "Loud and fast," he specifies. Though he enjoys many styles of music, he's partial to the work of Neil Peart, the drummer and lyricist for the rock band Rush.