Behind the Story: History of the National Organic Symposium #NOS2013
Aug01

Behind the Story: History of the National Organic Symposium #NOS2013

We're fans of podcasts here at CENtral Science, whether by Chemjobber and SeeArrOh, or by the good folks at Nature and Science. Last week, Lauren Wolf and I had a conversation about how a shorter, video version of podcast banter might make a fun addition to the mix. Submitted for your approval: our discussion about my story covering the National Organic Chemistry Symposium and its history. We're curious what you think- and what else you'd like to...

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John D. Roberts: The Seattle Veteran at NOS
Jun26

John D. Roberts: The Seattle Veteran at NOS

The Seattle conference welcomed chemists from near and far. They came from Berkeley, from Harvard, and from everywhere in between. Thirteen of the most eminent among them readied talks about their cutting-edge research, which they hoped would send everyone home inspired to further their own work. That meeting, the 16th National Organic Chemistry Symposium (NOS), took place fifty-four years ago. This week, the gathering is in its 43rd incarnation, and it's back in the Emerald City. So is one of the original speakers from that 1959 meeting-- John D. Roberts. As a young Caltech faculty member, Roberts gave a presentation entitled "Rearrangement Reactions of Small-Ring Compounds." It was already his third NOS talk, but he returned as a speaker several more times, collecting organic chemistry's highest honor, the Roger Adams Award, in 1967. Roberts, 95, is a pioneer in physical organic chemistry and nuclear magnetic resonance (J. Org. Chem. 2009, DOI: 10.1021/jo900641t). Conference cochair Paul B. Hopkins of the University of Washington made note of Roberts' presence during opening remarks. "I believe Professor Roberts is the only one of us in attendance who was also there at the 1959 Seattle NOS," Hopkins said, as the crowd gave Roberts an ovation. "But if I'm wrong about that, you'll have to let me know during the coffee break." Later that evening, this year's Roger Adams awardee, David A. Evans of Harvard, started his talk by thanking Roberts, who he called "inspirational," "my teacher," and "my friend of nearly 50 years." When Evans was a college student at Oberlin, the school "had just gotten an NMR, so we spent the summer poring over John's books" about the exciting new instrument, Evans recalled. He would get to know Roberts while earning his Ph.D. at Caltech. So Roberts could attend Evans' award lecture, NOS organizers broke with decades of tradition and moved the Adams Award Lecture, held on Tuesday nights for as long as anyone can remember, to Monday evening. Over a cup of black coffee, Roberts told C&EN about his experiences at NOS over the years. He reminisced about some of the scientific feuds that played out at the podium, including the epic cation controversy between Saul Winstein and H. C. Brown. Asked about the history of the meeting, recently published in the Journal of Organic Chemistry (DOI: 10.1021/jo302475j), which notes a decline in talks about his field of physical organic chemistry, Roberts is optimistic. "Physical organic is not dead--it's just been co-opted by everyone," he says. Problems in biochemistry, which might involve enzyme mechanisms or noncovalent interactions, are often very appealing to people trained in the field, he adds. The last time...

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The Guy With The Namesake Ligand: Brett Fors
Jun08

The Guy With The Namesake Ligand: Brett Fors

To troll the nightly poster sessions at the National Organic Symposium is to combine stargazing with a high school reunion. Nobel laureates rub elbows with undergraduates presenting their work. Graduate school labmates who haven't seen each other in years catch up. And a spread of food, wine, and beer fuels attendees through the midnight hour. It was here that I ran into Brett P. Fors, who just obtained his Ph.D. from Stephen Buchwald's lab at MIT. Fors has already been accorded a privilege that few chemists can claim-- he has a ligand named after him. I've had a longstanding interest in how chemists name things, so I couldn't resist asking Fors about that ligand-- better known as BrettPhos. BrettPhos was designed to facilitate palladium-catalyzed cross-coupling reactions which form C-N bonds, in cases where the nitrogen comes from a primary amine. One challenge there was getting selective monoarylation- getting one aryl ring attached to the primary amine instead of two. BrettPhos pulls off monoarylation very well. But since the original report of BrettPhos, the Buchwald team has learned that the ligand is also effective in Suzuki coupling chemistry, trifluoromethylation reactions, and fluorinations. "It's opened up a lot of different doors, but it wasn't the plan at first," Fors says. "There was a lot of luck involved there." Fors says the ligand came into being during the middle of his first year in grad school. In addition to his coauthors on BrettPhos papers he had guidance from postdoctoral researcher David S. Surry, who today works as a technical advisor at New York law firm Ropes and Gray. New ligands get named at the Buchwald group meeting, Fors explains. Originally, the ligand was going to be named BPhos, but another molecule had already claimed that name. So the privilege fell to Fors. He's not the only member of the group to have a ligand named for him, and as The Sceptical Chymist has reported, some of Buchwald's cats also have ligands named for them. But Fors doesn't call his ligand by its well-known name. "I actually can't say it- it's kind of weird," he says. Hearing that reminded me of the informal etiquette I've picked up about named reactions in organic chemistry-- that inventors of named reactions rarely use the proper names in their talks and papers, and are just about never the ones that coin those proper names in the first place. Fors helped develop another ligand during his time in the Buchwald group. That ligand will be published soon and will be named after another Buchwald feline, he says. Next up for Fors is a postdoctoral stint at the University...

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The Guy With The Questions At NOS: Albert S. Matlack
Jun07

The Guy With The Questions At NOS: Albert S. Matlack

If you're attending this year's National Organic Symposium at Princeton University, you know him as the elderly gentleman who's stood up to ask multiple seminar speakers about their catalyst loadings during question and answer periods. But there's much more to Albert S. Matlack besides his inquisitive nature. Matlack is an adjunct professor of chemistry at the University of Delaware, but he didn't start his chemistry career there. Before his time in academe he held a research position at the Hercules Powder Company, where he worked right across the hall from none other than 2010 chemistry Nobel laureate Richard Heck. Though Matlack survived the round of layoffs that affected Heck, he remembers those days well. "After World War II, it was a boom time for chemists," he recalls. "People believed you could solve all sorts of problems through chemistry." But by the 1970's and 80's, with the U.S. economy in the doldrums, layoffs seemed to be the solution to financial troubles to companies including Hercules, he says. In his later days at Hercules, Matlack's main project involved polymerization of dicyclopentadiene to give a polymer with the tradename Metton. But eventually, "the company cut off Metton and they didn't know what to do with me," he says. He left Hercules in 1994, after securing a teaching gig at Delaware with the help of chemistry professor John L. Burmeister. "The first course I taught was industrial chemistry," Matlack says. But an article in C&EN (Matlack is an avid reader and a 63-year ACS member) convinced him to try something else-- to combine his passions for chemistry and environmentalism and develop a course in green chemistry. He's been teaching that course ever since. By the late 1990s he decided to write a textbook, but had a hard time finding a publisher for a green chemistry text. "Publishers didn't think the field was going anywhere," he says. Today "Introduction to Green Chemistry" is in its second edition. Even though Matlack has a few other things keeping him busy besides green chemistry-- his presidency of the Society of Natural History of Delaware and his two grandchildren-- chemistry education is still very important to him. "Many people get turned off from chemistry in their first year learning about it," he says. "But there are still many problems for chemists to solve, and chemistry can be fun." More Matlack:A Delaware News Journal Article about Matlack's environmentalism...

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