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Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor of chemistry Gregory C. Fu “has changed how people think about and do organic synthesis,” writes MIT colleague Stephen L. Buchwald in nominating Fu for his award.
Harvard University professor of chemistry Eric N. Jacobsen writes that Fu’s “contributions to metal-catalyzed cross-coupling and Heck methodology and enantioselective catalysis have propelled him to the forefront of the important subfield of organometallics in organic synthesis. His catalyst systems are efficient and broadly applicable and have been adopted enthusiastically by the pharmaceutical research community.” Another colleague, David W. C. MacMillan, chair of the Princeton University chemistry department and director of the Merck Center for Catalysis, says Fu is “a superstar in the field of chemical synthesis.”
Fu’s pathbreaking research, say those who know his work, demonstrates his creativity and exceptional level of scholarship. In asymmetric nucleophilic catalysis with planar-chiral heterocycles, for example, Fu was among the first to understand that enantioselective nucleophilic catalysis could be accomplished via the production of chiral dimethylaminopyridine analogs. A particularly impressive innovation was his design of planar-chiral catalysts that provide an asymmetric environment around a pyridine ring without having to introduce stereogenicity in proximity to the reactive nitrogen center of the catalyst (a strategy that would greatly diminish reaction rates).
Next, Fu, who is 48, demonstrated that planar-chiral ligands can also be used with great success to induce asymmetry in a number of metal-catalyzed processes. Among the many transformation classes that his group has rendered enantioselective with this strategy are nitrone cycloadditions, enantioselective hydrosilylations of ketones, and allylic alcohol isomerizations.
Fu has also developed new palladium and nickel catalysts for novel cross-coupling processes. Against dogma, he was first to show that special ligand effects can enable many types of sp3-carbon-bearing halides to become useful substrates in these reactions. But his most remarkable accomplishments, colleagues say, involve the enantioselective cross-coupling of alkyl halides with aryl, alkylzinc, or alkyl boron substrates.
“He has not been contented with applying catalysts and ligand systems identified by others,” Jacobsen says, “but rather he has devised entirely new classes of ligands for the problems at hand.” He says Fu is a chemist “who develops new classes of organometallic compounds, applies them in creative ways to problems of enormous synthetic significance, and delves deeply into the mechanistic questions surrounding his new systems.”
Fu began his undergraduate research in chemistry at MIT in 1984 under Nobel Laureate K. Barry Sharpless. He completed a Ph.D. in chemistry in 1991 at Harvard University under chemistry professor David A. Evans. After a postdoctoral fellowship at California Institute of Technology with Nobel Laureate Robert H. Grubbs, Fu began his teaching and research career at MIT, where he was awarded a full professorship in just six years. He has published some 180 papers and is the recipient of numerous awards, including the ACS Arthur C. Cope Scholar and Elias J. Corey Awards.
Fu will present the award address before the ACS Division of Organic Chemistry.