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Derek Lowe The 2002 Model

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Derek Lowe, an Arkansan by birth, got his BA from Hendrix College and his PhD in organic chemistry from Duke before spending time in Germany on a Humboldt Fellowship on his post-doc. He's worked for several major pharmaceutical companies since 1989 on drug discovery projects against schizophrenia, Alzheimer's, diabetes, osteoporosis and other diseases. To contact Derek email him directly: Twitter: Dereklowe

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« Imclone Really Does Get Bought | Main | A Green Fluorescent Nobel Prize »

October 7, 2008

Nobel Season 2008

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Posted by Derek

So we come upon Nobel season again. As I do every year, I'm going to throw the comments section open for nominations for who should (and who shouldn't!) get the prize in Chemistry this year. We may well have a trapdoor open on us again, since some years the committee uses the Chemistry prize as a dumping ground for spare biology prizes, but we'll see how it goes.

If we do get a chemistry prize this time, my money is against my own field, synthetic organic chemistry. In fact, long-term, I'm betting against it, unless the work has a hook into some broader story. That could be nanotechnology, drug discovery (wouldn't that be nice?), advances in materials science, energy storage or conversion, and the like. But I don't see many (any?) prizes being given out for straight organic synthesis, the way E. J. Corey's was. I think that the time for that has indeed passed.

But there's room for a prize or two in synthetic methods, I have to say, a sort of H. C. Brown-type prize. A lot of people have waited to see if palladium couplings would get one, for example. I think that metal-catalyzed couplings are definitely worthy of the recognition - they've taken over the world to a degree that younger chemists can't realize - but I don't know if the Nobel committee has ever been able to unravel the prize distribution to where they feel safe with it.

That's a problem in several areas (drug discovery being another example where credit is often spread around). Individual researchers can end up in the same boat, which is the usual opinion about, say, George Whitesides of Harvard. He's done a lot of very interesting work over the years, but it's been in several rather different areas. I think we can use all of those sorts of scientists we can get, myself, but the profile doesn't match up well with what the Nobel folks are looking for.

So, place your bets, folks. For reference, the Thomson/Reuters folks have a short list of their own, based on literature citations: Charles Leiber of Harvard for nanotech, Roger Tsien of UCSD for green fluorescent protein, and Krzysztof Matyjaszewski of Carnegie Mellon for atom-transfer radical polymerization.

Comments (21) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: Current Events


1. Wavefunction on October 7, 2008 7:51 AM writes...

Straight out organic synthesis indeed seems unlikely for a long long time. But the Palladium people still should get it. Stuart Schreiber should also get it, which would be a partial vindication of organic synthesis. Materials science may not get it this year because last year's prize was sort of related. I am also banking on computational modeling (especially Martin Karplus) which has not won for a while. Tsien definitely deserves it. Maybe all that blogging for all those years influenced the committee. Here's a wild prediction: for all we know, a field like geochemistry or climate chemistry might get it (when was the last geochemistry prize given out?)

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2. RandDChemist on October 7, 2008 8:27 AM writes...

When I was in graduate school in the mid-90's, Schreiber spoke. It was a great talk, albeit sometimes over my grad student brain at the time. Several of senior group members said it was only a matter of time before Schreiber wins a Nobel prize. I agree with Wavefunction, he certainly is deserving of one.

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3. Anonymous on October 7, 2008 8:51 AM writes...

Got to admit, Schreiber was the first one that came to my mind - what for specifically, though? To me, on reflection, he seems to be doing what pharma scientists have been doing for a long time (applying organic chemistry thinking to biological processes), just in a more public forum.

As a synthetic chemist, I agree with Derek's comments about metal-catalyzed reactions - general in a way that wasn't imagined 20 years ago (hard to believe I can make that statement!) I kind of thought the award to Grubbs, Shrock, and Chauvin covered that - is there another one for palladium chemistry?

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4. Anonymous on October 7, 2008 8:56 AM writes...

Got to admit, Schreiber was the first one that came to my mind - what for specifically, though? To me, on reflection, he seems to be doing what pharma scientists have been doing for a long time (applying organic chemistry thinking to biological processes), just in a more public forum. I don't mean to troll, if I knew more outside my own subfield I'd throw some names out, I'm genuinely curious.

As a synthetic chemist, I agree with Derek's comments about metal-catalyzed reactions - general in a way that wasn't imagined 20 years ago (hard to believe I can make that statement!) I kind of thought the award to Grubbs, Shrock, and Chauvin covered that - is there another one for palladium chemistry? Who are the recipients?

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5. Roadnottaken on October 7, 2008 10:00 AM writes...

If Schreiber gets it, it should be for the discovery of HDACs which is, IMHO, his major actual accomplishment. He's well-known for HTS/DOS and the general development and advancement of chemical biology, but those are pretty vague compared to real discoveries.

Also, to be fair, Roger Tsien deserves a Nobel for fura-2 and a GFP prize could go to him and a few others...

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6. Anonymous on October 7, 2008 10:19 AM writes...

Don't forget Schreiber's work that contributed to the formation of Ariad, and the consequent fun Ariad / Amgen have given us! He won't get it.

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7. startup on October 7, 2008 11:35 AM writes...

I say under no conditions there's going to be a conventional chemistry prize this year. We will either get an applied physics prize, Zewail-type, or biology prize like last year. I wouldn't be at all surprised if they gave it to Gallo.

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8. MikeEast on October 7, 2008 11:38 AM writes...

I agree that metal catalyzed reactions are certainly worthy - Heck/Suzuki/others (Nobels are not given posthumously though, right?). Unfortunately I think that ship has sailed with the awards to Noyori/Sharpless/_______ and then to Grubbs/Shrock. Of course these are only very loosely related but even so... My money is on ABO (anything but organic).

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9. Chronically OT on October 7, 2008 2:34 PM writes...

Ah, I am having a sated post-lunch moment.

In high school, my chemistry teacher was the assistant coach of the JV football team.

A year or so later, my freshman Organic year was taught by Whitesides, Sharpless, Chris Walsh and Bill Rastetter.

All five were equally famous at the time.

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10. Petros on October 7, 2008 3:03 PM writes...

Fiven the medicine prize fr HPV and the comments about Gallo missing out it would seem doubly remarkable for himto get the chemistry prize.

Roger Tsien, as ever, would seem to be an obvious candidate

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11. T on October 7, 2008 3:33 PM writes...

Although palladium is worthy, does anyone think that either Buchwald or Hartwig will have a shot in the coming future? They have/will certainly expand and develop their niches of chemistry.....

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12. greg on October 7, 2008 3:43 PM writes...

dont underestimate the chances of fraser stoddart. his borromeans are just too nice :)

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13. Wavefunction on October 7, 2008 5:07 PM writes...

Fraser's borromeans are so nice that someone had to say that three times...

I personally don't think Stoddart would get it. In fact I think it would be premature. While his chemistry has been superb, there's ample applications for it out there that need to be explored before it becomes a widespread mainstream tool. Maybe in a few years he will.

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14. SteveM on October 7, 2008 9:03 PM writes...

Just get it to a chemist, not to bio-chemist masquerading as one...

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15. imatter on October 7, 2008 9:44 PM writes...

It's gonna be related to Green chemistry, somehow.

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16. cookingwithsolvents on October 7, 2008 11:15 PM writes...

Pd coupling DEFINITELY deserves it but I don't know who will get it.

Whitesides is a possibility.

I wouldn't be surprised if it's someone who I'm only passingly familiar with, though. . .(i.e. in the bio, physical, or analytical realm)

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17. Tot. Syn. on October 8, 2008 3:29 AM writes...

Palladium mediated couplings have transformed organic chemistry, but the allocation of genius is to diffuse to pick-out one (or even three) chap for the prize. Consider the number of people who have made significant contributions to the field: Heck, Stille, Sonagashira, Hiyama, Negishi, Suzuki, Miyuara, Hartwig, Buchwald... et c. Sure, some of the names on that list are 'ineligible' due to lack of a pulse, but it's still an extensive list. And frankly, they've missed the boat, with metathesis getting the prize before Pd...

My bet would be on George Whitesides, with outside chances to Ken Houk.

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18. RV on October 8, 2008 5:20 AM writes...

And GFP wins it!

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19. milkshake on October 8, 2008 6:26 AM writes...

So it is bloody biologists this time again.

What Nobel committees like best is a narowly-defined seminal work, like Knowles did. I wonder if Hajos-Parrish-organocatalysis ever produces Nobels, it seems like a reasonable, long-term bet to me.

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20. Anonymous on October 8, 2008 3:47 PM writes...

Organocatalysis seems to be taking off like transition-metal mediated chemistry did in the 90's/early 00's. I'm still astounded at some of the work going on now. Macmillan's paper in the latest Science is a good example.

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21. Anonymous on September 20, 2009 5:08 PM writes...

KRZYSZTOF MATYJASZEWSKI is not the first developer for atom transfer radical polymerization, or ATRP!

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