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Francis P. Garvan-John M. Olin Medal

Recipients are honored for contributions of major significance to chemistry

by Faith Hayden
February 9, 2009 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 87, Issue 6

Credit: Courtesy of Kathlyn A. Parker
Credit: Courtesy of Kathlyn A. Parker

Sponsored by the Francis P. Garvan-John M. Olin Medal Endowment

When you ask Kathlyn A. Parker how she got into chemistry, she immediately credits her many chemistry teachers over the years. From her high school chemistry days at Senn High School, in Chicago, to her postdoctoral work with Columbia University’s Gilbert Stork, it’s clear that Parker has had excellent, encouraging mentors.

As an undergraduate at Northwestern University, “I had an exciting and challenging course in organic chemistry,” taught by professor Jim Marshall, she says. “Marshall, of course, is a spectacular lecturer. I was hooked.”

Parker is now a professor of organic chemistry at the State University of New York, Stony Brook. When she received a message to return a call from then ACS President Bruce Bursten, hearing that she would receive the Garvan-Olin Medal was the last thing on her mind, she says. “I thought I had been delinquent in doing a task for an ACS committee, or that he was calling to ask me to do such a task,” she recalls.

Bursten had other, better news. The Garvan-Olin Medal is the third oldest national ACS award. It recognizes distinguished service to chemistry by women chemists.

“I was, and am, very honored,” Parker says. “The Garvan-Olin Medal has been awarded to truly accomplished individuals. Those whom I know personally and professionally are great scientists and, of course, good citizens. It’s a thrill to be counted among them,” she adds.

According to colleagues, Parker is more than qualified for selection. On top of her service activities, she has significant chemical achievements. Her program in organic synthesis is focused on unorthodox approaches to molecule construction.

“In the case of Professor Kathlyn Parker,” says Columbia’s Stork, “we have the happy situation of someone who would richly deserve the award either for her distinguished service or for her research contributions.” She “has demonstrated an extraordinary mastery of the thicket of methodologies, tactics, and synthetic protocols available to those organic chemists interested in constructing complex targets,” he says. Her papers “demonstrate, in unusually clear language, her ability to find very original solutions to difficult problems of synthesis.”

Parker received a B.A. degree in chemistry from Northwestern in 1966. From Northwestern, she went to work with W. S. Johnson at Stanford University, where she received her Ph.D. in organic chemistry in 1970.

Throughout her career, Parker has been extraordinarily active in professional institutions including ACS, the National Institutes of Health, the National Science Foundation, and the American Association for the Advancement of Science. “The activities in which I felt I had the most impact have been those that focus on the public policy issues of ACS and AAAS,” she says.

Parker has chaired the ACS Task Force on NIH Funding and helped to found the ACS Legislative Action Network (LAN). “It is important for our professional societies to advocate for the scientific community and also for us as individuals to communicate with our representatives in government on questions that affect research and education in science.”

Parker is a fellow of both the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation and the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation. She has served as the chair of the Division of Organic Chemistry of ACS. She is also a fellow of AAAS.

When Parker is not in the lab, she loves to attend live theater, opera, and dance concerts. “I am a huge fan of tap dancing and an amateur practitioner,” she says.

So how does such a busy, accomplished chemist stay on top of her lab, research, fellowships, and committees and still have time to tap her troubles away? Again, Parker points to those around her. “I’ve always been lucky in that my family encouraged me to do whatever I wanted to do,” she says. “I am also lucky to have wonderful friends, several of them from my childhood and also some from more recent times, and most of them are as busy as I am.”

But, naturally, she says, “it’s easier if the work is also fun.”

Parker will present the award address before the Division of Organic Chemistry.


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