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Your Chemists Who Rock

by Bibiana Campos Seijo
April 27, 2015 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 93, Issue 17

CORRECTION: On April 29, 2015, this story was updated to correct the affiliations of K.C. Nicolaou and George Olah.

In my April 13 editorial, I mentioned that I had been to the ACS Division of Membership & Scientific Advancement’s “Rock Stars of Chemistry” event during the society’s national meeting in Denver. The event allows new members of ACS to network with eminent chemists. The experience led me to ask readers, “Who’s your living rock star of chemistry?” Many of you answered that call via C&EN’s website, Facebook, and Twitter. Here’s a selection of the replies I found most interesting, original, or humorous.

Credit: Kobi Kalmanovitz
Photo of Ada Yonath, professor of structural biology, sticking out her tongue like Gene Simmons of Kiss.
Credit: Kobi Kalmanovitz

Amy Groves and Michele McGuirl picked Caltech’s Harry Gray. “His many contributions to bioinorganic chemistry are sweetened by his passion for science and support and encouragement of young researchers,” McGuirl explains.

Sergio Palazzi admits it’s difficult to pick one. His nominations included Gray, Rice University total synthesis expert K.C. Nicolaou, and three Chemistry Nobelists: Cornell chemical theorist Roald Hoffmann, USC carbocation chemist George Olah, and Florida State University’s Harold Kroto, of C60 fame. It’s like asking, “Which is the most fundamental of the Beatles?” Palazzi muses. “The only answer is, of course, ‘all four of them.’ ”

Ash Jogalekar would “definitely pick Roald Hoffmann if asked to choose one. Nobel Prize-winning science, advocacy, philosophy of chemistry, poetry, play writing, and even a TV show—he has done it all. The only issue with him is that he is not as publicly visible as some other scientists. If I had to pick a scientist in that category I would probably pick Martyn Poliakoff.” YouTube star Poliakoff, a University of Nottingham chemist who hosts the popular Periodic Table of Videos, also gets Nina Notman’s vote.

Philip Ball once saw polymer chemist Helmut Ringsdorf, now at Cardiff University, “open and then finish a bottle of (his brother’s) wine during a very charismatic talk in Germany, to the indignation of some in the audience.” Ball deemed the act “pretty rock ’n’ roll.”

Scripps’s Phil Baran got a shout-out from Vinay Thakur “for his amazing work in synthesis of complex molecules.”

Michal Hocek named Marvin Caruthers of the University of Colorado, Boulder, because “without his automated phosphoramidite synthesis of oligonucleotides, there would be no molecular biology as we know it. This finding has changed the world!”

Robert Topper put forward Donald Truhlar, a theoretical chemist at the University of Minnesota. Truhlar is “not only an amazing theorist, but a fantastic mentor to hundreds of physical chemists. He’s so quiet and self-effacing that many might scoff at me calling him a ‘rock star.’ ”

Neil Gussman’s favorite is Michelle Francl, a theoretical chemist at Bryn Mawr College. “She studies the frontiers of chemistry and also writes gracefully and well for blog readers.”

John Talley topped Kevin Jerome’s list because Talley “has coinvented eight marketed pharmaceutical drugs ... and those drugs have resulted in more than $40 billion in sales.” Jerome adds that Talley has even been called a “chart-topping rock star in the world of drug discovery” by the St. Louis Business Journal.

Other readers’ living chemistry rock star picks included Yale’s William Jorgensen; Stanford’s Carolyn Bertozzi; UCLA’s Neil Garg; McMaster University’s Ron Gillespie; Iowa State’s Malika Jeffries-EL; Penn State’s Karl Mueller; and PNNL’s Shawn Kathmann. But my favorite suggestion was one by @TheWackademic, because it came with a rock ’n’ roll picture reminiscent of Kiss band member Gene Simmons’s iconic pose (shown). The nominee? “Ada Yonath, ribosome crystallographer, Nobel Laureate, all-around badass.”

Views expressed on this page are those of the author and not necessarily those of ACS.


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