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Derek Lowe The 2002 Model

Dbl%20new%20portrait%20B%26W.png After 10 years of blogging. . .

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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« Careers, And Those Words "Stuck" and "Advance" | Main | K. C. Nicolau, Rice University, Six Million Dollars, And Malevolent Aliens »

September 11, 2012

Nicolaou Moving? Others?

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Posted by Derek

There's a rumor making the rounds that K. C. Nicolaou is leaving Scripps (La Jolla), with the most often-mentioned destination being Rice University. That's striking many people as a bit unlikely, unless Rice has decided to really throw the money (and facilities spending) around, and has decided to start off with a big splash. But there is at least a bit of a Scripps-to-South migration going on, with M. G. Finn heading to Georgia Tech. So we shall see. . .anyone heard more?

Comments (64) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: Chemical News


1. Anonymous on September 11, 2012 12:08 PM writes...

Baran to the Broad Institute.

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2. anonymous on September 11, 2012 12:22 PM writes...

Jin-Quan Yu to Chicago.

Scripps time as #1 chemistry coming to an end.

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3. Anonymous on September 11, 2012 12:23 PM writes...

CPRIT (Texas pubic funds for cancer research) awarded him $6M if he comes to Rice. How's that for throwing money around?

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4. DLIB on September 11, 2012 12:39 PM writes...

I believe they grabbed some UCSD biophysics people... Onuchic, Wolynes...

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5. Curious Wavefunction on September 11, 2012 12:40 PM writes...

Wolynes, Onuchic and now KCN. Rice must be bringing in the big bucks.

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6. milkshake on September 11, 2012 12:46 PM writes...

funding issues are probably only part of the problem. Scripps administration became unbelievably bureaucratic and dysfunctional.

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7. Hedonism Bot on September 11, 2012 1:11 PM writes...

"Texas pubic funds"

Now THOSE are some funds!

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8. Cypriot-American chemist on September 11, 2012 1:22 PM writes...

For the record....I am NOT moving to Rice!!

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9. Entire Rice Faculty on September 11, 2012 1:32 PM writes...

C'mon, K.C., you know you want to come here!

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10. MoMo on September 11, 2012 2:06 PM writes...

Who really cares where he is going? As long as he stays away from the the Public Tax Teats labeled Grants.

I am still trying to figure out what makes this an issue and why KCN is still around.

Now if he has produced something useful I could understand, but synthesizing big chlorophyll-like molecules shows npothing but elitism.

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11. Cersei on September 11, 2012 2:12 PM writes...

Everything is bigger in Texas...

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12. mowgli on September 11, 2012 2:19 PM writes...

#11 Yes, including Nicolau's ego

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13. WCA on September 11, 2012 2:31 PM writes...

I can see why he'd leave. Living in a palatial mansion in La Jolla must get old.

Why on earth wouldn't they throw that kind of money at some rising star or two.

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14. MoMo on September 11, 2012 3:03 PM writes...

WCA- Why throw money at KC?

Because Rice is weak and wantgs a big name act to bolster its fund-raising with dumb comboy mil(bil)lionaires.

Look who we have- A guy who can synthesize anything a bacterium can but uses 10 powst-docs!

Cha-Ching! (Sound of flushing toilet here)

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15. Anonymous on September 11, 2012 3:04 PM writes...

How I long for the days when tenured professors could be forced to retire at age 65.

Do we really need KCN sucking all that money away from the young for another 10 years?

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16. TiredofNaiveUnemployable PhDChemists on September 11, 2012 3:13 PM writes...

Good. Maybe we will stop producing so many unemployable medicinal chemists here in La Jolla.

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17. Anonymous on September 11, 2012 3:26 PM writes...

@16 Jealous much?

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18. A Nonny Mouse on September 11, 2012 3:37 PM writes...

I remember the story of the post doc who went to speak to speak to KCN in his office and didn't know why he could not get his attention until he saw that KC was watching cartoons on a TV in his office. At that point he knew it was time to leave (the post doc position that is- now a prof in the UK).

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19. anon on September 11, 2012 3:44 PM writes...

Rumour has it that K.C. had to tunr over half his labs to the baran group... Whatever happened there...

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20. The Iron Chemist on September 11, 2012 3:55 PM writes...

Is he the one with the beret or is that Danishefsky?

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21. James on September 11, 2012 5:11 PM writes...

A move ain't official until the moving truck starts unloading.

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22. @20 Iron Chemist on September 11, 2012 6:10 PM writes...

Danishefsky is the one with the beret, yarmulke, or New York Yankees hat.

Nicolaou is the one with the minotaurs.

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23. Anonymous on September 11, 2012 7:08 PM writes...

KC is moving to China

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24. Ocin on September 11, 2012 7:36 PM writes...

Scripps is going to lose a great mind.

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25. Uber on September 11, 2012 9:27 PM writes...

nicolaou is without question one of the most accomplished chemistry minds of our time. He has earned the right to go where he wants and it's not our place to question the decision. Frankly, id be excited if he moved as it would mean he is far from retirement and will ensure more creative research for man more years to come

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26. Boron21 on September 11, 2012 9:30 PM writes...

Here here!

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27. Justin Peukon on September 11, 2012 10:20 PM writes...

I'm leaving my lab and move to my home. Both are completely obscure places that nobody will never want to apply for.

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28. Anon on September 11, 2012 10:35 PM writes...

@19 Pretty much true

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29. Anon on September 11, 2012 10:51 PM writes...

The Baran lab is moving up to take over half of the Nicoloau lab space. It doesn't look like KC is going to stay.

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30. Student on September 11, 2012 11:24 PM writes...

MD Anderson would be my guess.

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31. Student on September 11, 2012 11:33 PM writes...

I was wrong. Rice gave him a department.

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32. Canuck Chemist on September 12, 2012 12:38 AM writes...

With a group of, I'm guessing, 60 people between San Diego and Singapore, what is it that KCN isn't already able to tackle? Maitotoxin trimers?

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33. Shanedorf on September 12, 2012 1:00 AM writes...

CPRIT officials claimed they had over $ 6 Billion to invest in research & development during a recent pitchfest in La Jolla. CPRIT spent just over $100 million so far in 2012 so they have the cash to make a very attractive offer.

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34. James on September 12, 2012 3:11 AM writes...

Wow, what has changed at Rice?

I was at Rice when the Chemistry department pushed out Fukuyama and Ciufolini in the late 90's because the department, which was small and needed to make strategic choices, decided to focus on biochemistry and nanotechnology instead of synthetic organic chemistry.

At the time it seemed like a stupid and personality-driven choice. Looking back, the strategy of selective investment makes more conceptual sense to me. Rice has only 2,500 undergrads - much smaller than most people realize. They can't do it all. Still, choosing biochemistry and nanotechnology - both very nascent at the time - seemed to have more to do with the most recent buildings on campus then a carefully considered strategy.

Incidentally, the inter-faculty acrimony of this situation was the main reason I passed on grad school and ended up in a completely different field (with the occasional lurking on chemistry blogs for ol' times sake).

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35. Brutal Lithium on September 12, 2012 5:06 AM writes...

I heard he's off to buy a small island in the Mediterranean.... Cyprus perhaps?

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36. Former owl on September 12, 2012 6:16 AM writes...

This would be a step up for KCN.

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37. newnickname on September 12, 2012 7:19 AM writes...

Maybe it isn't a shift of Rice's focus but a shift of KCN's focus. Maybe he is abandoning Synthetic Org Chem to try his hand at nanoscience?

(Some make the study of a single problem their entire life's work. Some people thrive by shifting fields. Linus Pauling "dabbled" in everything from quantum to bio to crystallography to physiology ... never a dull moment.)

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38. MoMo on September 12, 2012 8:04 AM writes...

Sure, he's a good chemist with many papers and and a string of scientists trained under his belt.

But has anyone ever studied what his REAL contributions to society are? Do they really hold up and is synthesizing natural products really a smart and efficient use of capital, both monetary and human?

Maybe someone out there knows this answer- How many life-saving drugs has he produced? Reactions leading to consumer based chemicals of note?

Until these answers are known and from my knowledge base the answer is ZERO, distributing millions to him when younger and more innovative minds are lacking shows how shallow the University System can be.

Shame on you Rice.

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39. Former Owl on September 12, 2012 8:49 AM writes...

#34 The buildings were what done it? How do you think Dell Butcher Hall was funded? Off the back of the Chemistry Nobel Laureate(s), that's how. Funny how a Nobel Prize can cause a university to refocus. I'd say that nanotech emphasis has paid off in spades for Rice. As for biotech, it's not just the buildings on campus but all those ones across Main St. It was a conscious strategy to leverage local assets.

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40. Anon on September 12, 2012 10:58 AM writes...

KCN will be more dedicated in the next 10 years than most of us will ever be. Thats the only way you accomplish as much and the only way you still get offers at his age. Its inspiring to know he still has a lot more in him, and I applaud Rice for recognizing it.

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41. Hap on September 12, 2012 12:42 PM writes...

I don't doubt KCN's chemistry ability, but more whether it's worth the concentration of money needed to make it real. Since there is generally not much new methodology involved in his syntheses (maybe those of others as well), the worth is in the worth of the achievements. Natural products are good for synthesis because they provide goalposts that can't be moved, but in most cases they don't do much else - they usually have biological activities, but rarely is enough material prepared to test them. Teaching students can be done with lots of different targets, and the products are generally pretty portable (grad students, much less postdocs, at Rice are probably not going to stay in Texas forever).

If I were TX, I'd be looking to recruit faculty who can start businesses with their research, and total synthesis people (other than Curran, and perhaps others) aren't generally very good at that. I'm not sure that KCN is going to give them what they want.

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42. CR on September 12, 2012 1:10 PM writes...

@41, Hap...
: I'm not sure that KCN is going to give them what they want."

That all depends on what they want. If they want to recruit an established investigator with a big name; then they got exactly what they wanted.

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43. Hap on September 12, 2012 1:44 PM writes...

If getting KCN will drive money to the university, then yes. If the state is looking for more money from the deal from ancillary businesses, though, I don't know if it'll work out quite as well. If it diverts emphasis from other fields at Rice, it may also not work out as well for them.

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44. Hap on September 12, 2012 1:49 PM writes...

If TX is looking for drug candidates, or cancer researchers, I'm not sure how KCN is going to get those for TX, either.

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45. bbooooooya on September 12, 2012 1:56 PM writes...

"If the state is looking for more money from the deal from ancillary businesses"

Wasn't KCN involved with Discovery PArtners? I hear that's doing well for San Diego.

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46. anon on September 12, 2012 2:13 PM writes...

This is news to a few people (within TSRI) who would definitely know all about it, if it were true.

Sorry to be a naysayer.

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47. deez on September 12, 2012 2:49 PM writes...

We can question the validity of rumors all we want, but to discredit the man's accomplishments is immature and ignorant. Speak with any of the countless patients who have taken Taxol, Vancomycin, etc before sounding foolish. What should be more relevant to all of us is the dismal state of funding within the broader chemistry field impacting big and small fish alike.

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48. Wayward Son on September 12, 2012 3:32 PM writes...

I heard Dale Boger is leaving for Kansas as well....

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49. Curious on September 12, 2012 5:39 PM writes...

From what both Derek and many commenters on this blog say, it would seem that total synthesis of complex molecule is a useless and dying art and shouldn't be pursued in academia. However, in my (admittedly somewhat limited) experience, when it comes to hiring new medicinal (or process to maybe a slightly lesser degree) chemists straight out of academia, it seems that the candidates with total sythesis backgrounds are regarded very highly, with solid methodology experience either even or slightly behind depending on who you talk to. The candidates often left on the outside are those whose experience primarily involve academic medicinal chemistry, because the bredth of chemistry you learn trying to make bioactive molecules is often much smaller due to the more simple nature of these molecules. In addition, performing academic medicinal chemistry on grant budgets is often extremely difficult vs. industrial budgets and thus rarely mimics all of the considerations that go into optimizing drug molecules in industry, rendering an academic medicinal chemistry experience not extremely valuble in industry.

So, if we make all of the total synthesis groups switch to doing the "important" chemistry of trying to better mankind through medicinal chemistry, do we hurt the quality of chemists being fed into industry (whose budgets vs academia lead to in my opinion an exponentially higher chance of actually bettering mankind through their research)? While directing basic research efforts in biology towards projects which can lead to useful developments in drug targets should definitely be a priority, in my opinion graduate studies in chemistry should best be spent gaining as much and as diverse knowledge possible which can then be applied in making novel drug molecules in industry or training the next crop of chemists through a professorship academia.

I'd be curious to see other's takes on this, particularily about what they've observed industry values in their job candidates' graduate/postdoc chemistry trainings.

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50. Hap on September 12, 2012 6:51 PM writes...

Making natural products is good training because it helps to learn how to do lots of reactions and how to solve problems. Its intrinsic value, though, seems limited - you can use it to prove structures or at least disprove them, but you can't generally make enough of molecules to test the activity that is the alleged purpose of the synthesis. (The routes also tend to be so long that they can't ever be reproduced.) Boekelheide was complaining nearly forty years ago that synthesis should be able to produce enough of a molecule to achieve its aims, and while not everyone can be the first to make a molecule (and thus support or refute its structure), lots of people making unuseful amounts of natural products seems like a waste of money.

The way we approach synthesis is at least partly at fault - people are interested in who got there first, and not how good the synthesis is, how much it can deliver, or what it could be adapted to do, which are harder to judge. Of course, those syntheses tend to be iterations of previous work, so it might be hard to get to them if you don't start with the long, ugly (and expensive) syntheses.

Perhaps focusing on targets more apt to be made by single grad students and which might have useful properties might help.

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51. stop on September 12, 2012 7:45 PM writes...

Just to play devil's advocate, people say that total syntheses are not valuable, and getting a Ph.D. in synthesis is a waste of time... but how many Ph.D. theses, in ANY field, actually lead directly to something valuable. I'd guess that >99% are a waste of time / only an academic interest / never become useful.

Isn't the point of any Ph.D. training?

My two cents.

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52. CR on September 13, 2012 7:40 AM writes...

@47, deez...
"We can question the validity of rumors all we want, but to discredit the man's accomplishments is immature and ignorant. Speak with any of the countless patients who have taken Taxol, Vancomycin, etc before sounding foolish."

I'm sorry, did Nicoloau provide the process chemistry needed to synthesize Taxol and Vancomycin for all of those patients? I guess I missed that part of his excellency.

He's a very good synthetic organic chemist who has done quite a lot of solid total syntheses. Personally, I don't put him above any number of other organic chemists - he just had more people and usually louder.

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53. NN on September 13, 2012 8:44 AM writes...

When he sets a goal, he reaches it. For that, we must respect him. If he sets out to make Rice the leading research arena, he will undoubtedly achieve it. Maybe we are all a little jealous-I'd love an offer like that.

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54. deez on September 13, 2012 8:56 AM writes...

@CR - you have missed the entire point, perhaps a reason that organic synthetic chemistry is in the current state that it is. Our generation attempts to run before learning to walk, and cannot distinguish the forest from the trees. Without the building blocks that we all create on a daily basis, none of the future medical breakthroughs can exist.

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55. CR on September 13, 2012 10:03 AM writes...

@ deez...

Nope, I didn't miss the point at all. Your claim is Nicoloau impacted patients taking Taxol and Vancomycin, etc. Unless Nicolaou is somehow synthesizing the Yew tree, he's not impacting those patients anymore than anyone else. Let's not overemphasize his contributions to medicine.

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56. Hap on September 13, 2012 12:37 PM writes...

No, but Holton and Ojima certainly did. Nicolaou was probably an indirect effector - I assume that at least some of Holton's work was driven by his Taxol synthesis, which was probably pushed some by Nicolaou, among others.

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57. CR on September 13, 2012 12:53 PM writes...

@56, Hap...

Exactly. He's a very good synthetic chemist that has helped the field; but not anymore than many other contributors. But we could keep going back to Woodward and Corey and then leave everyone else out.

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58. Anonymous on September 13, 2012 7:31 PM writes...



Scripps is on the fast track to become a retirement village. Young profs (Baran, Fokin, Yu) will run.

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59. ProudAlum on September 14, 2012 4:08 PM writes...

I am appalled and the lack of respect and spitefulness that fills the lines above. To discuss a rumor about KCN moving is understandably curious, however, to question his accomplishments or the pursuit of natural product synthesis in general is ludicrous. We are all scientist and we should be promoting each others' efforts and successes. Your long ours in the lab and your sacrifices are also mine. Your success, and KCN's success, complement my success in that our innovations prompt ongoing broad scientific exploration.

KCN continues to pay it forward- I have seen him in the lab at midnight, on Saturday, on Sunday, and on holidays. I have seen him take his students to the hospital (and stay hours until issues are resolved) when there is no family around to help. I have seen him mentor high school students to encourage their love of science. He may be intimidating, and he is tough as balls on the people around him, but it is only because he demands the best. If he takes the offer, we should be encouraged to think that a man can choose not to retire in order to continue researching, writing, and mentoring at full speed. With the lack of emphasis on basic science in this country we should look at the wide distribution of the CPRIT money as a massive accomplishment, not for a handful of individuals, but for a broad number of disciplines.

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60. Anonymous on September 14, 2012 10:16 PM writes...

^well hello KC

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61. TMS on September 15, 2012 1:10 PM writes...

^ I can guarantee you that #59 is not KC.

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62. SiO2lungs on September 16, 2012 7:04 PM writes...

I heard KCN's upcoming paper on Maitotoxin total synthesis will feature black and white artwork! f+++ YEAH!!!!

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63. Kulinkovik on September 19, 2012 5:33 PM writes...

Good for him. We can not deny his influence into the field but obviously when you publish so much not everything can be of equal quality. Good luck for KCN.

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64. Another Proud Alum on September 28, 2012 7:14 PM writes...

#59: That is not the KC I know. When was he like that?

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