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Arthur C. Cope Scholar: Sarah E. Reisman

by Carmen Drahl
March 4, 2013 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 91, Issue 9

Credit: Lindsay Repka
Sarah E. Reisman
Credit: Lindsay Repka

Every summer, tourists flock to Sarah E. Reisman’s seaside hometown of Bar Harbor, Maine. And every summer, local teens join the tourism trade, waiting tables and working in parks. At first, Reisman was one of them. Then she found different opportunities—summer internships at Mount Desert Island Biological Laboratory and the Jackson Lab. It wasn’t until she worked with Connecticut College organic chemist Timo V. Ovaska, however, that the idea of a scientific career path finally crystallized. Since then Reisman, now an assistant professor at California Institute of Technology, hasn’t looked back.

Ovaska introduced Reisman to her eventual Ph.D. adviser, Yale University’s John Wood. Her years in the Wood lab gave her grounding in alkaloid synthesis. She then became a postdoc in Eric N. Jacobsen’s group at Harvard University, where she focused on catalysis. Her Harvard experience cemented her interest in an academic career, something she hadn’t been certain she’d pursue. “Anyone who’s not intimidated about pursuing an academic career these days is a little delusional,” she jokes.

Reisman, 33, started her independent career at Caltech in 2008. While there, “she has impressively melded novel methodology with natural product total synthesis,” says Stephen L. Buchwald, a chemistry professor at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. She has accrued several major funding sources for her group, an achievement that Buchwald calls “most impressive, given today’s funding climate.”

Several natural products have fallen to the Reisman group’s synthesis efforts, including acetylaranotin, which had eluded chemists for 40 years, and maoecrystal Z. On the methodology side, her group reported a formal [3+2] cycloaddition that forms pyrroloindolines, a motif found in natural products with medicinally relevant properties. “I’m really excited about our scientific contributions so far,” Reisman says. She’s eager to get biological collaborations off the ground, because scientists know little about how natural products such as acetylaranotin—a fungal metabolite with anticancer activity—work at a molecular level.

Reisman has received a number of honors, including a National Science Foundation Career Award, a Camille Dreyfus Teacher-Scholar Award, a Cottrell Scholar Award, and numerous awards from pharmaceutical and chemical firms.

“Sarah Reisman is rapidly emerging as a world leader in the area of synthetic organic chemistry,” says Caltech colleague Gregory C. Fu, a professor of chemistry.

“Simply stated, she is one of a kind,” adds Caltech professor of chemistry Brian M. Stoltz.

“At each stage of my career, I’ve had a phenomenal mentor. They haven’t guided me in the wrong direction yet,” Reisman says. “I hope I can be as good a mentor to my students and postdoctoral fellows, because their dedication and hard work helped to make this award possible.”

Reisman swam for her college’s team, even though she arrived late to most practices. “As chemists all know, lab work takes longer than you expect,” she quips. Today swimming is on the back burner. She and her husband, a former Wood group lab mate, have a one-year-old son. “These days,” she says, “my hobby is trying to be a good mom.”


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