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Arthur C. Cope Scholar Awards

March 9, 2015 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 93, Issue 10

Credit: Michael Barnes
Michelle Chang, an associate professor of chemistry and of molecular and cell biology at the University of California, Berkeley.
Credit: Michael Barnes

By the time she was five or six years old, Michelle C. Y. Chang was already spending quite a bit of her free time in the lab. That’s because her mom, a geneticist, would bring Chang to work with her.

But Chang dreaded going to the lab. “My mom would give me karyotypes to cut out instead of coloring books,” she recalls. “You cut them out, and you match the chromosomes.” She vowed to never become a researcher.

It wasn’t until she was in college that Chang began to realize what research was all about. Then she fell in love with it. “I got excited about doing research when I started to ask questions about what things are and how things work,” she says. “I really loved being in the lab when I was an undergrad.”

Today, Chang, 37, is an associate professor of chemistry and of molecular and cell biology at the University of California, Berkeley. She is being recognized by the American Chemical Society for her cutting-edge research at the intersection of chemistry and synthetic biology.

“Michelle is very bright, hard-working, and fearless,” says JoAnne Stubbe, who jointly advised Chang’s Ph.D. at Massachusetts Institute of Technology with Daniel G. Nocera. Chang “has demonstrated an excellent nose for interesting and timely problems and a willingness to tackle problems with which she has had no prior experience,” adds Stubbe.

Chang “has a firm grasp on the engineering/manipulation side, but adds to the mix the ability to interpret structure, chemistry, and mechanism,” says former Berkeley colleague Michael A. Marletta of Scripps Research Institute in La Jolla, Calif.

Chang earned a B.S. in biochemistry/chemistry, and a B.A. in French literature, from UC San Diego in 1997. After earning her Ph.D. in chemistry from MIT in 2004, she completed a postdoc at UC Berkeley in 2007 and was hired on as a faculty member that same year.

Chang’s research focuses on three areas: understanding and designing biosynthetic pathways for selective catalytic carbon-fluorine bond formation; the in vivo production of biofuels from plant biomass; and, more recently, the development of nature-inspired magnetoparticles.

“She is a rising star at the interface of chemical and synthetic biology,” says James Wells, professor and chair of pharmaceutical chemistry at UC San Francisco. “She has a unique combination of depth in enzymology, understanding metabolic pathways, bacterial genomics, and chemistry that is exactly what is needed to crack these challenging problems.”

Chang has received numerous awards, including the ACS Eastern New York Section’s Buck-Whitney Award in 2013, the Camille Dreyfus Teacher-Scholar Award in 2013, a National Institutes of Health New Innovator Award in 2010, a National Science Foundation CAREER Award in 2009, and a Technology Review TR35 Young Innovator Award in 2008.

Her husband, Christopher J. Chang, whom she met in graduate school, is also a chemistry professor at UC Berkeley.—Linda Wang

Credit: Courtesy of Debbie Crans
Debbie C. Crans, professor of Chemistry at Colorado State University.
Credit: Courtesy of Debbie Crans

Vanadium is an early transition metal, best known for its incorporation in hardened steel alloys used in hand tools. But there’s more to vanadium than that. Debbie C. Crans, professor of chemistry at Colorado State University, has spent her career illuminating vanadium chemistry, particularly related to the role it plays in biological systems.

Crans, who is 59, began working on vanadium when she arrived at Colorado State as an assistant professor in 1987. “When I started, peopled hadn’t studied vanadium as much as other elements because it is a little more complicated. It reacts with everything and has many different oxidation states,” she says. “Furthermore, vanadium is a trace element and less investigated compared to, for example, the essential iron.”

Early on, Crans focused on the speciation of vanadium(V) in aqueous solution. In a study back in 1990, she was the first to use vanadium-51 two-dimensional exchange spectroscopy to describe the rapid interchange among vanadium oxometalates.

Crans’s work on the role of vanadate oligomers as enzyme inhibitors followed. She was particularly intrigued that vanadium(V) can behave like phosphorus. She set out, she recalls, “trying to demonstrate that the organic vanadates are similar to the organic phosphates with regard to structure, properties, and biological effects.”

“Crans’s studies of model complexes of vanadium and simpler ligands have been fundamental to understanding the complex inorganic chemistry of vanadium in aqueous solution and laid the foundation for further work in biologically relevant media,” says George M. Whitesides, professor of chemistry at Harvard University.

A study that showed that vanadate normalized elevated glucose levels in diabetic rats provided a new direction for Crans’s work. “I was absolutely fascinated because vanadate is a simple salt,” she says. “How can it mimic the function of insulin, which is a large peptide?”

With Gail R. Willsky, a biochemist at the University at Buffalo School of Medicine & Biomedical Sciences, Crans tested various vanadium complexes to see if they might be more efficacious than the vanadium salts. Elucidating the mechanism of how the vanadium compounds work proved to be challenging. However, vanadium compounds are generally believed to inhibit regulatory protein tyrosine phosphatases.

Crans became interested in chemistry while studying science in high school and subsequently went to the University of Copenhagen, in Denmark, for her undergraduate studies. Crans went on to graduate school at Harvard and worked in Whitesides’s enzymology group. There she learned to “trick enzymes to make them do what I wanted them to do.” After she earned her Ph.D. at Harvard, she worked as a postdoc on the mechanism of the F1-ATPase, which was a joint project between Orville L. Chapman (now deceased) and Paul D. Boyer at the University of California, Los Angeles.

Crans is active in the small but passionate vanadium community, organizing the first International Vanadium Symposium. The biennial symposium attracts organic, inorganic, medicinal, and other kinds of scientists interested in vanadium. The ninth symposium was held last July in Padova, Italy.—Alex Tullo

Credit: Courtesy of Antonio M. Echavarren
Antonio M. Echavarren, 59, a professor of organic chemistry and group leader for ICIQ, the Institute of Chemical Research of Catalonia, in Tarragona, Spain.
Credit: Courtesy of Antonio M. Echavarren

Antonio M. Echavarren, 59, a Spanish citizen, had wanted to be a catedrático de química—or chemistry professor—since he was a teenager. In his current role as professor of organic chemistry and group leader for ICIQ, the Institute of Chemical Research of Catalonia, in Tarragona, Spain, he has not only achieved his teenage goal but established a reputation as one of the foremost organic and organometallic chemists in the world.

Echavarren has published more than 190 scientific papers. Much of his recent work is focused on transformations using gold catalysis. “His activity in homogeneous gold catalysis played an extremely important role in guiding and popularizing the field,” says John Montgomery, a professor of chemistry at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor.

Montgomery is not the only admirer of Echavarren’s work. “Spain has an impressive tradition of excellence in organometallic chemistry and catalysis, and I regard Echavarren as the leader of this excellent group,” says Gregory C. Fu, a chemistry professor at California Institute of Technology. Echavarren’s originality, intellectual rigor, and insight are characteristics that place him in the top echelon of organometallic chemists worldwide, Fu says.

“An elegant example of the applications of his chemistry is the Au-catalyzed cyclization of an enyne structural motif for the synthesis of englerins A and B, two natural products with potent antitumor activity,” says K. C. Nicolaou, a professor of chemistry at Rice University. “This is a beautiful example of gold chemistry resulting in a highly efficient synthetic route to these enantiomerically pure bioactive molecules and their analogs,” he says.

That work on the synthesis of englerins A and B is now drawing interest from pharmaceutical companies, Echavarren says. But Echavarren is not just focused on medicinal applications for his chemistry. He is also interested in developing catalysts for making materials. His lab has created “crushed fullerenes” featuring 60 carbon atoms and is now developing nanoribbons and nano­graphenes made with gold catalysts.

Echavarren puts his successes down to intellectual curiosity and enjoyment in solving difficult problems. “Many times I have approached a particular field because I don’t understand the method given or the explanations made in the literature,” he says. Even as a young child, he was already seeking out problems to solve. At the age of nine, he persuaded his parents to buy him a book featuring chemistry and physics experiments. Chemistry soon emerged as his favorite scientific discipline. “I always thought that chemistry was more mysterious. Physics was too rigorous, biology not rigorous enough, but chemistry was just right,” he says.

Echavarren is currently developing multinuclear catalysts featuring small gold clusters with novel performance characteristics. The field is complex and there are multiple problems to solve, perfect then for the ever-curious Echavarren.—Alex Scott

Credit: Courtesy of Ben Feringa
Ben L. Feringa, the Jacobus H. van ’t Hoff Distinguished Professor of Molecular Sciences at the University of Groningen, in the Netherlands.
Credit: Courtesy of Ben Feringa

Growing up on a farm in the Netherlands, Ben L. Feringa spent a lot of time thinking about the intersection of science and nature. “When I would go out into the fields with my father, we would talk about how plants grow from seeds and how nature evolves,” he recalls. But the thing that really hooked him on science, he says, was the thrill of discovery.

Now the Jacobus H. van’t Hoff Distinguished Professor of Molecular Sciences at the University of Groningen, in the Netherlands, Feringa says he still remembers the first time he made a molecule that never existed before. “I was really excited,” he says. “The beauty of chemistry is that I can design my own molecular world.”

Feringa’s molecular designs include the world’s first unidirectional molecular rotary motor—a molecule that spins in one direction only and is fueled by light. “This work has laid the groundwork for a crucial part of future molecular nanotechnology, specifically nanomachines and nanorobots powered by molecular motors,” comments organic chemistry expert and University of Texas, San Antonio, professor Michael P. Doyle.

Harvard University nanotechnology expert George M. Whitesides notes that Feringa demonstrated “extraordinary insight” when he doped a liquid-crystal film with his molecular motors. As the motors rotated, they perturbed the liquid crystal, causing it to change color. In doing so, Feringa demonstrated a visible macroscopic change spurred on by the motor molecules. “It was an experiment I wished that I had thought of,” Whitesides says.

Feringa has also made “groundbreaking contributions to asymmetric catalysis, including the first catalytic enantioselective conjugate addition of organometallic reagents, such as organozinc reagents, Grignard reagents, and organolithium reagents, with absolute levels of stereocontrol,” notes supramolecular chemistry expert E. W. (Bert) Meijer, of Eindhoven University of Technology, in the Netherlands. One of the ligands developed in Feringa’s lab, Meijer notes, is now used in an industrial hydrogenation process to produce a drug intermediate.

Feringa did his doctoral work with Hans Wynberg at Groningen. Instead of doing a postdoc, he took a job with Royal Dutch Shell, working in the company’s catalysis group. After six years in industry, he decided to enter academia because he was more eager to read the latest research paper than business proposals. “Working with students keeps you young,” Feringa says. “It’s a great privilege to work with bright young minds.”

Feringa has won numerous awards, including the Spinoza Prize, the highest scientific honor in the Netherlands. Feringa grows his own vegetables, chops wood on Saturdays, and bikes about 18 miles each day. Although it’s tough to lure him away from the lab, one winter sport is a powerful draw. “As soon as there is ice on the lakes and canals in the north of Holland, I am not in the lab,” Feringa says. “I am out ice-skating.”—Bethany Halford

Credit: Courtesy of Miguel Garcia-Garibay
Miguel Garcia-Garibay, professor of chemistry at University of California, Los Angeles.
Credit: Courtesy of Miguel Garcia-Garibay

Very few chemists can say they originated an entirely new class of materials. Miguel Garcia-Garibay, professor of chemistry at the University of California, Los Angeles, is one of them.

“Miguel Garcia-Garibay’s unique intellectual contributions and expertise in organic solid-state chemistry make him the undisputed leader in the field of solid-state organic chemistry,” says Timothy M. Swager, professor of chemistry at Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Garcia-Garibay, who is 54, is probably best known for his molecular machines, such as compasses and gyroscopes that reside inside solid crystals and are activated by applying magnetic or electrical fields.


Upon arriving at UCLA as an assistant professor in 1992, Garcia-Garibay built a body of work by researching the photochemistry of crystalline solids. In the early 2000s, he had a key insight. Reactions require molecular displacement in the crystals. Why not exploit that freedom of motion by building into the crystals molecular elements meant to move? “To us, the concept of having motion and structural changes within the bulk of solid was not so foreign,” he says. “It wasn’t a big jump.”

Garcia-Garibay designs the crystal around the elements that are moving. For instance, he might start with a polar phenylene, bicyclo[2.2.2]octane, para-dicarborane, or triptycene rotator. He then installs two alkyne linkages that act as an axle and connects them to a stator that encapsulates them. He notes that the shape of the rotor controls the alignment of these elements when the molecules crystallize.

Garcia-Garibay is just beginning to work with physicists and materials scientists on applications for the molecular machines. He envisions that further research could yield novel piezoelectric and electro-optic materials. He would like to introduce gearing systems in the materials, where different components would have correlated motion.

“The concepts that come from his novel solid-state structures are fascinating,” says MIT’s Swager. “The freely rotating gears in Miguel’s structures can organize to give bulk polarizations for molecular switching. I view Miguel’s work as a road map for the construction of the molecular machines of the future.”

More than just researching molecular machines, Garcia-Garibay has recently been investigating chemical reactions for synthetic applications within the bulk of solids. This would be a way to make hard-to-synthesize molecules without solvents or catalysts. “We view this as a new paradigm for green chemistry,” Garcia-Garibay says.

Garcia-Garibay’s affiliation with chemistry began as an undergraduate at the University of Michoacan, in Mexico. He was working in a research group that was extracting components from native medicinal plants in an attempt to identify active ingredients.

He earned his Ph.D. from the University of British Columbia in 1988, held a postdoctoral position at Columbia University from 1989 to 1992, and is currently serving a term as the chair of UCLA’s chemistry department.—Alex Tullo

Credit: Neil and Lindsey Garg
Neil K. Garg, full professor at UC Los Angeles.
Credit: Neil and Lindsey Garg

The pet owners of East Fishkill, N.Y., couldn’t have known it, but the nice young man conducting a door-to-door dog census of their neighborhood would someday become an award-winning organic chemist. Neil K. Garg, 36, is a person of many interests. “I did a lot of things in addition to academics when I was a kid,” he says. That included working at his local Blockbuster Video store and even selling Cutco kitchen knives.

Garg enrolled at New York University as a premedical student, but he found his chemistry calling in Marc A. Walters’s honors freshman chemistry course, and eventually in Walters’s lab. Garg also conducted undergraduate research in Mir Wais Hosseini’s supramolecular chemistry lab at Louis Pasteur University, in Strasbourg, France. Garg didn’t decide on organic chemistry until graduate school at California Institute of Technology, when he chose Brian M. Stoltz as his adviser. “Brian was brand-new at the time—I helped him unpack boxes,” Garg remembers. He describes both Stoltz and his postdoctoral adviser Larry E. Overman of the University of California, Irvine, as “heroes and role models.”

Today, Garg is a full professor at UC Los Angeles. Stoltz couldn’t be prouder of his former student. “I think that we have only seen the beginning of a long, sustained, brilliant career,” he says.

At UCLA, Garg beat more than a dozen topflight organic chemistry teams to N-methylwelwitindolinone C isothiocyanate, a molecule made by algae that chemists covet for both its densely functionalized structure and its anticancer activity. Those he bested include John L. Wood of Baylor University, who made Garg custom-etched glasses as a congratulatory gift. Garg’s synthesis was “a bombshell in the natural products community,” Wood says.

Amos B. Smith III of the University of Pennsylvania praises the “extraordinary innovation” in the Garg lab’s synthesis. For example, to boost the yield of a reaction that inserts a nitrogen substituent on an unactivated carbon, Garg’s group swapped deuterium for a hydrogen atom. “This is one of the most elegant examples of C–H functionalization to date in total synthesis,” Smith says.

Garg has also rendered classically unreactive compounds viable substrates for cross-coupling with an inexpensive nickel catalyst. Cross-coupling publications appear daily, says Gregory C. Fu of Caltech. “But Garg’s work is distinct and of particularly high impact.” Garg is also popularizing heterocyclic arynes as building blocks for drug discovery. He is making an impact as demonstrated by the awards he has won from pharmaceutical companies among his many honors.

Garg is passionate about teaching and outreach. His organic chemistry course, in which students create YouTube videos about coursework for extra credit, was named by LA Weekly magazine as one of the city’s most inspiring college classes. He lives with his wife and children in the UCLA dormitories, where he hosts study breaks and events for undergraduates.

He says he owes his Cope Scholar Award to his lab: “They’re the brains and the brawn behind everything. It’s great to see their work recognized.”—Carmen Drahl

Credit: Courtesy of Chuan He
Chuan He, professor at the University of Chicago.
Credit: Courtesy of Chuan He

Chuan He thinks that the human genome, even with its 3 billion DNA base pairs, seems small.

“When you look at the complexity of a human being, 3 billion isn’t that big of a number,” he says. “We have tens of trillions of cells, and each cell is slightly different from the others.”

Human cells achieve this diversity and complexity from just 20,000 or so genes through epigenetics, a series of chemical modifications to DNA, RNA, and chromosomal proteins. This chemical coding process controls when, where, and to what extent certain genes get expressed. He’s lab at the University of Chicago has developed tools to study and has uncovered mechanisms behind some of these chemical modifications, in particular those to DNA and RNA.

For these contributions to chemical biology, He is now receiving a Cope Scholar Award. “Chuan He is a brilliant scientist who has made innovative contributions to chemical biology,” says Richard F. Jordan, chair of the Chicago chemistry department. “Using chemistry as his base, he is posing and answering fundamentally important questions in nucleic acid chemistry.”

Some of He’s work with DNA has focused on the chemical tweaks to the base cytosine. About 2 to 8% of the cytosines in our genomes are methylated, which can affect gene expression. Sometimes cells oxidize these 5-methylcytosines (5mCs) to produce another modified DNA base called 5-hydroxymethylcytosine (5hmC). Biologists have only recently started to study 5hmC, and He thinks it has profound effects on stem cell differentiation as well as neural function.

He has developed tools to study 5hmC. His lab established a simple strategy to label 5hmCs with azide groups, allowing researchers to isolate DNA fragments containing the modified base or to cross-link proteins that recognize it. He has also developed a sequencing method called TAB-Seq, which pinpoints the exact locations of unmodified cytosines, 5mCs, and 5hmCs. The technique is now widely used by biologists and medical researchers.

Like DNA, RNA also gets methylated in cells. Although scientists discovered this modification in the 1970s, little was known about its function until recently, He says. In 2011, his lab discovered the first enzyme that removes methyl groups from RNA, suggesting that, as with DNA methylation, cells add methyl groups to and remove them from RNA to control its fate. He’s group and others have now found that methylation can affect how a cell handles RNA in many ways, such as RNA’s export from the nucleus, its stability, and its translation.

He’s discovery of the first RNA demethylase, says Samuel H. Wilson, a DNA repair researcher at the National Institutes of Health, has sparked the development of a whole new field: RNA epigenetics. To help expand the field, He’s group is working on tools to identify sites of RNA methylation and to characterize proteins that recognize the modification.

He, 43, earned a bachelor’s degree in chemistry from the University of Science & Technology of China, in Hefei, in 1994, and a Ph.D. in chemistry from Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 2000. After a postdoc at Harvard University, He became a professor at the University of Chicago in 2002.—Michael Torrice

Credit: Courtesy of Kenichiro Itami
Kenichiro Itami, a professor at Nagoya University, in Japan.
Credit: Courtesy of Kenichiro Itami

With a lab that spans four distinct chemical research fields, Kenichiro Itami, 43, wears many different hats. His work in efficient small-molecule synthesis would imply he is an organic chemist, but his carbon nanotube (CNT) seed syntheses fall closer to the realm of materials science. “If I had to say one field that I’m a specialist in, I’d say I’m a synthetic chemist,” he notes. “I was always interested in other fields that I might have an impact on when I went into synthetic chemistry.”


Itami, a professor at Nagoya University, in Japan, also admits to having a less obvious inspiration. “I love beautiful molecules,” he says. “I’m like a Lego player.” Itami calls cubane his “hero molecule” because of its elegant geometry, but when cubane was synthesized, the researchers had no particular use for it in mind. Itami’s molecules, on the other hand, boast impressive functionality while keeping up with the legacy of aesthetically pleasing structures. His syntheses of uniquely warped graphene nanoplatelets, carbon nanocages, and cycloparaphenylenes are great examples of Itami’s eye for functional carbon architecture: All three of these products are targeted toward the creation of new carbon-based electronics.

These achievements reflect the core focus of Itami’s group: innovative carbon-carbon bond formation. This might sound like organic chemistry as usual—forming C–C bonds is necessary for any complex synthesis—but the discovery of C–C-bond-forming reactions is rather rare. Being at the frontier of this field allows Itami’s group to mold previously unattainable molecular shapes and to complete backdoor syntheses of hard-to-make compounds.

One of the hallmarks of Itami’s work is the selectivity of his lab’s catalysts that activate carbon-hydrogen bonds. The group’s synthesis of dragmacidin D, a marine natural product, includes three distinct cross-coupling reactions that each cleave another C–H bond. Such a surprisingly simple synthetic pathway “challenges some basic assumptions in retrosynthetic analysis,” says Phil S. Baran, a professor of organic chemistry at Scripps Research Institute California.

The Itami group’s homogeneous transition-metal catalysts have even transcended academia and come into the commercial spotlight. Ten reagents developed in the Itami lab are now commercially available, and several companies use them in their manufacturing processes.

Moving forward, Itami—recently appointed director of the Institute of Transformative Bio-Molecules at Nagoya University—is especially excited to begin synthesizing new molecules aimed at controlling the aging process in crops and livestock with the goal of accelerating food production. Although agricultural chemicals are often seen in a bad light in the U.S., Japan’s economy and population are outgrowing its domestic food production; therefore, safe and effective biomolecules are increasingly valuable to the country.

Itami also has hopes of working his graphene nanoplatelets into electronics, expanding the scope of his CNT seeds to create nanotubes of various symmetries, and developing room-temperature, solution-phase CNT syntheses. “Everything is on the way,” he says. “I’m sorry—we’re so slow at publishing things.” Despite the apology, Itami’s lab has already published six papers in the first two months of 2015.—Manny Morone

Credit: Kenneth Nicholas
University of Oklahoma chemistry professor, Kenneth M. Nicholas.
Credit: Kenneth Nicholas

Chemistry and rock-and-roll music don’t always harmonize, but for University of Oklahoma chemistry professor Kenneth M. Nicholas, both passions run deep. In the 1960s, he could be found at any number of local clubs in New York playing a set on his guitar, and as the 1970s rolled in, his musical inclinations turned toward acoustic and folk music. Similarly, Nicholas’s chemistry research interests also changed over the years.

In the first half of his career, Nicholas discovered and further developed a class of dicobalt compounds capable of generating a variety of substituted alkynes from their corresponding propargylic ethers. This type of reaction is now commonly referred to as the Nicholas reaction. Nicholas is quick to point out that he did not coin the name, and he believes it was first used by Harvard University’s Stuart L. Schreiber in a publication. Over the years, the name has stuck.

Nicholas is currently writing a review article for Organic Reactions that will focus on the work he accomplished in the first 20 years since he discovered the reaction and what others have used it for in the subsequent 20 years. “It is very satisfying to see one’s work used by others; it is the highest compliment that can be paid to the value of the work,” he tells C&EN.

Over the past few years, Nicholas’s research has primarily focused on addressing problems in the energy arena. Nicholas initially worked on using carbon dioxide as a feedstock to reduce the carbon footprint of industry. Recently, he has been developing new chemical reactions to address problems associated with biomass conversion. Nicholas explains this research transition as an extension of his desire to discover new reactions that will further fundamental insights into unknown reactivity and that might yield practical applications for industry.

So far, he has had success in preparing a new catalytic approach to the deoxygenation of 1,2-diols, a common component found in refined biomass. He expects that the removal of the oxygen content from the potential biofuel will make it similar to current commodity chemicals and fuel blends.

Beyond experimental work, Nicholas’s research group has moved toward molecular modeling in recent years. By using common theoretical chemistry software tools, such as Gaussian and Spartan, his team has transitioned from using theory to explain experimental results to using theory to predict which reactions might occur. “This has been a significant change for us,” Nicholas says, “but it is becoming the common approach to research design.”

In the spring of 2014, Nicholas became professor emeritus. Although he has stopped teaching in the classroom, he maintains an active research lab. “I still have a motivated group of research students and postdocs, and as long as we can receive funding to pursue my ideas, our work will continue,” says Nicholas. But at age 67, Nicholas is planning to spend more time away from the lab. He says he will use the time to travel with family, to play golf, and to reconnect with his musical passion.—Mitch Garcia

Credit: Sarpong Group
Richmond Sarpong, University of California, Berkeley, full professor.
Credit: Sarpong Group

As a teenager living in Botswana, Richmond Sarpong had a big decision to make. He’d been accepted as a premedical student at a British university. But he also had a full-tuition scholarship offer from Macalester College, in snowy Minnesota. “I was waffling between chemistry and medical school,” Sarpong remembers.

Sarpong was born in Ghana, and his father, a medical officer for the Ghanaian government, worked with nongovernmental agencies that had partnered with the pharmaceutical company Merck & Co. to fight river blindness with the antiparasitic drug ivermectin. “I grew up idolizing medicine, but that experience opened my eyes to the idea that you didn’t have to be a medical doctor to make a difference,” Sarpong says. The family would later move to Zambia and then Botswana, where Sarpong found an additional person to look up to—his high school chemistry teacher Dr. Ramakrishna. Sarpong chose Macalester, steering him toward chemistry for good.

Sarpong, 40, is recognized for his creative strategies to synthesize alkaloid molecules, a class that includes some of nature’s most potent medicines. His passion for organic chemistry was shaped by his mentors—first Macalester’s Rebecca Hoye, then Princeton University’s Martin Semmelhack, then California Institute of Technology’s Brian Stoltz. Stoltz offers high praise for his former postdoc: “Richmond is creative, deep-thinking, and highly motivated—a role model for students and young faculty,” he says.

Since 2004, Sarpong has been a faculty member at the University of California, Berkeley, where he now is a full professor. “Coming to Berkeley was all about the talent,” Sarpong says. His talented team delivers efficient syntheses of molecules such as citrinalin B, complanadines A and B, and lyconadin A, all of which have intricate structures and intriguing biological activity.

“In addition to their academic flair, Richmond’s syntheses are succinct and practical,” says Sarpong’s Berkeley colleague K. Peter C. Vollhardt. Sarpong’s team invented a late-stage carbon-nitrogen bond formation for the express purpose of obtaining lyconadin A. Though the move was “highly risky,” Vollhardt says, it paid off, and the C–N bond formation has proven applicable to other substrates.

New reaction development is a frequent theme in the Sarpong lab, says Chemistry Nobel Laureate and famed synthetic chemist Robert H. Grubbs of Caltech. Besides the C–N bond formation, an oxidative process, Sarpong has also discovered or improved upon numerous transition-metal-catalyzed reactions. That blend of synthesis artistry and methods development makes him “without question one of the leading young synthetic organic chemists,” Grubbs says.

Though Sarpong chose chemistry, the power of medicine is never far from his mind. “Nature selects small, architecturally complex molecules for their function,” he says, yet many of today’s drugs are practically flat molecules. “We shouldn’t be shackled by a molecule’s complexity,” he adds. Drugmakers support his creativity, as demonstrated by the many awards he has received from pharmaceutical companies.

Sarpong plays tennis in his spare time, a hobby that involves his formidable sprinting skills—he still holds the Macalester record in the 100-meter dash.—Carmen Drahl


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