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ACS Award For Creative Work In Synthetic Organic Chemistry

by Bethany Halford
February 23, 2015 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 93, Issue 8

Credit: Courtesy of F. Dean Toste
F. Dean Toste, University of California, Berkeley, chemistry professor.
Credit: Courtesy of F. Dean Toste

Sponsored by Aldrich Chemical Co. LLC

F. Dean Toste is no stranger to awards, but being recognized with the ACS Award for Creative Work in Synthetic Organic Chemistry is a special distinction for the University of California, Berkeley, chemistry professor. After all, it was organic chemistry’s creative component that lured Toste away from studying biochemistry during his undergraduate years at the University of Toronto.

“When I took organic chemistry, I got hooked by the idea that you could create new molecules and new reactions that didn’t exist before,” he says. “And if I’m going to rank the things that still appeal to me about organic chemistry 20 years later, the creative aspect of organic chemistry is at the top.”

Chemists have taken note of Toste’s chemical creativity, particularly in the realm of catalysis. “Dean Toste is a phenomenon,” says his UC Berkeley colleague Robert Bergman. “He develops new synthetic methods with a rational rather than a ‘let’s try everything’ approach and facilitates them by a deep commitment to mechanistic understanding.”

“As a scientist, Toste can be best described as creative, prolific, driven, a scholar, and a true raw talent,” says Princeton University chemistry professor David W. C. MacMillan, an expert in organic synthesis. “He is the type of person that has a sheer thirst for research, and his enthusiasm for chemistry as a whole is completely contagious.”

Highlights of the prolific work to come from Toste’s lab include the development of high-oxidation-state metal-oxo complexes as catalysts for transformations other than oxidation, work on anionic chiral catalysis, and pioneering research on the use of gold as a catalyst.

“Gold was considered an inert metal that had little use in homogeneous catalysis,” notes California Institute of Technology’s Robert H. Grubbs, who was Toste’s postdoc adviser after his graduate work in Barry M. Trost’s group at Stanford University. “Dean demonstrated that there is a whole family of reactions that can be catalyzed efficiently by gold complexes.”

Toste, 43, says there’s no secret behind his success, but if there is a guiding principle behind his work, it’s to explore unknown areas. “I think it’s important not to buy into what everybody else is doing just because it’s hot,” he says. “I tell my students to try to ignore all the noise of the field and do something you think is interesting, creative, and, hopefully, important.”

And Toste hopes as a principal investigator, or PI, that his research program is one where students’ creativity can flourish. “If there’s anything I’m proud of, it’s the fact that I have a group of students who are extremely creative based on the environment that we’ve set up,” he says. The vibe is relatively laid-back, Toste explains, and students are encouraged to collaborate.

“The PI gets the award, but everybody knows it was not the PI who did that work, and oftentimes it was not the PI who crystallized the ideas,” Toste points out. “There are a lot of fantastic people in my group who are really responsible for this award.”

Toste will present his award address before the Division of Organic Chemistry.


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