The first chemistry set Gary E. Keck ever laid his hands on was a coffee can full of crayons and garbage. At the age of five, Keck loved to place this makeshift apparatus above a heating grate in his house and watch as its contents melted. Some might have called such behavior a fire hazard. To Keck, however, such behavior was simply the actions of a very curious kid who knew exactly what he wanted to do with his life. “I wanted to mix stuff up and see what happened,” Keck says. “I’ve known I’ve wanted to be a chemist forever.”
As a professor of organic chemistry at the University of Utah, Keck, 64, has taken his love of experimentation and applied it to the world of natural product synthesis, earning him the distinction of Cope Scholar. “Gary is highly deserving of this honor,” says Jon D. Rainier, a fellow professor at the University of Utah. “He is a true scholar who has had an extensive, innovative, and long-lasting impact on the field of organic chemistry.”
To understand the impact Keck has had on organic synthesis, one need look no further than the names of some of the field’s techniques. Keck allylation, Keck macrolactonization, and Keck asymmetric allylation have all played important roles in the synthesis of complex natural products and analogs. Still other reactions Keck has developed facilitate the synthesis of the natural product family known as bryostatins.
“I am a huge fan of professor Keck, especially his recent pioneering work with bryostatin,” says Dale L. Boger, who studies synthetic organic and bioorganic chemistry at Scripps Research Institute California. “Using total synthesis to prepare the natural product and well-conceived key analogs,” Boger says, “Keck has changed the preexisting view of their mechanism of action, dissecting structural features now recognized as responsible for functional activity.” It’s research that could pay huge dividends in the development of treatments for cancer, Alzheimer’s disease, and HIV (C&EN, Oct. 24, 2011, page 10).
Despite these far-reaching impacts, Keck says the most satisfying part of his job is working with his students, including the dozens of graduate students and postdocs he’s mentored over the years. Keck particularly enjoys watching his students mature as scientists. “Seeing them go from extremely green people who don’t know how to do anything to being some of the most accomplished researchers on the planet, that’s really gratifying,” he says.
Keck’s own transformation into a renowned chemist began at Bowling Green State University, where in 1971 he earned a B.S. in chemistry and physics. Keck then received a Ph.D. in organic chemistry from the University of Wisconsin, Madison, in 1975 before working as a postdoc in the lab of Harvard University professor E. J. Corey. In 1977, Keck joined the faculty at the University of Utah.
It’s been a long road, but also an extremely fulfilling one, says Keck, who loves to sing the central science’s praises among his students. “If you want to have a career that will have a great impact on human health, you don’t want to go into medicine,” he’ll often tell his undergraduate organic chemistry class. “What you want to go into is chemistry.”