Stuart L. Schreiber is the sort of scientist who defies categorization. With a body of work that includes chemical synthesis and chemical genetics, it’s probably easiest to place the 58-year-old into the quickly growing catchall category of chemical biology. Schreiber, after all, leads chemical biology research within the Broad Institute’s Center for the Science of Therapeutics, where he serves as director. He is also a Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator and the Morris Loeb Professor of Chemistry & Chemical Biology at Harvard University.
But Schreiber doesn’t hesitate to describe himself otherwise. “I am an organic chemist,” he says. “There’s no doubt.” Indeed, it is Schreiber’s work taking the tools of organic chemistry and applying them to problems in biology and human health for which he is being recognized with the 2014 Arthur C. Cope Award.
“Stuart Schreiber’s seminal scientific accomplishments, visionary linkage of synthetic chemistry and biology, and role in advancing the field of chemical biology have transformed chemistry, biology, physiology, and medicine,” says David R. Liu, a Harvard professor who uses chemistry and evolution to study biological problems. “Several new drugs have been developed whose therapeutic effects are the direct consequence of proteins or cellular mechanisms revealed by Schreiber’s research,” Liu notes. Furthermore, he says, Schreiber’s body of work “has demonstrated the near-limitless power of chemistry to probe biology and medicine in surprising ways. This growing recognition has helped move chemistry to the center of the biomedical sciences.”
“Schreiber’s science has had an enormous impact on chemistry and medicine by illustrating the power of natural and synthetic molecules as probes of fundamental life processes and by providing new insights into key signaling and regulatory mechanisms in the cell,” adds Peter G. Schultz, a chemistry professor at Scripps Research Institute, in La Jolla, Calif., and a biotech entrepreneur. “When I teach modern biological chemistry, the work of Schreiber is required reading. He is clearly one of the world leaders in the field.”
“Schreiber has been a pioneer in the use of small molecules, both natural products and those arising from diversity-oriented synthesis, to explore biology and identify and characterize intracellular targets,” notes Christopher T. Walsh, a professor of biological chemistry and pharmacology at Harvard Medical School. “His findings have propelled understanding of signaling pathways in cell biology of healthy and diseased cells.”
But Schreiber tells C&EN that when he started his undergraduate studies at the University of Virginia, tackling tough scientific problems couldn’t have been further from his mind. “I didn’t have much interest in college,” he confesses. “The first three weeks I hardly went to classes. I told my sister that I was going to quit.”
He explained to her that he had gone to his academic adviser looking for guidance on what to study. Schreiber told the man that he was considering a degree in forestry. “He said to take forestry you need to take biology, and before you take biology you have to take chemistry,” Schreiber recalls. So the adviser asked how Schreiber had done in high school chemistry. “I said, ‘I never had high school chemistry.’ So he said, ‘You can’t take college chemistry because that’s a flunk-out course.’ ”
Schreiber clearly remembers his sister’s reaction: “She said, ‘Stuart, I support you leaving college, but that’s a really dumb reason. Why are you listening to this guy?’ ”
Spurred by his sister’s wisdom, Schreiber went into the campus bookstore and started browsing chemistry textbooks. He passed over the introductory chemistry textbook and reached for “Organic Chemistry” by Robert T. Morrison and Robert N. Boyd. “I picked it up and looked at it, and it was just awe inspiring,” Schreiber remembers. “The first impression I had was that it was so much like art, and I loved art.”
Schreiber soon learned that he’d been looking at the text for a more advanced course than the introductory class he was supposed to take. But he talked the instructor into letting him in the course. That was when he fell in love with chemistry. “My life was changed, and I knew it,” Schreiber says. “I’d had no direction, no ambition. And now I knew I’d found the thing that I just loved.”
Schreiber went on to do his doctoral work at Harvard with Robert Burns Woodward and Yoshito Kishi. A faculty position at Yale University followed. In 1988, Schreiber moved to Harvard, where he has held numerous positions. In 1994, he became an investigator with the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, and in 2003, Schreiber cofounded the Broad Institute.
“The Broad Institute was created with the idea of integrating two disciplines: human biology and chemistry,” Schreiber says. “I firmly believe this is a frontier for organic chemistry. I believe it so much that I’ve worked hard to create a new environment where interdisciplinary science—especially integrating human biology, chemistry, and chemical biology—will thrive. I hope in my lifetime I can help the Broad Institute take out a disease.”
Schreiber credits much of his success to the many students who have come to train with him. “If I reflect over my career, I’ve had this extraordinary good fortune of having trainees come into my lab because they were attracted to the challenges of interdisciplinary science and collaborative science,” he says. “This fearless group of trainees comes to work every day with great big smiles on their faces because they want to change the world.”