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DBL%20Hendrix%20small.png College chemistry, 1983

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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« Nicolaou Moving? Others? | Main | Honking, Squawking Chemical Ignorance »

September 12, 2012

K. C. Nicolau, Rice University, Six Million Dollars, And Malevolent Aliens

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Posted by Derek

Well, an alert commenter to this post sent along this link to the Cancer Prevention Research Institute of Texas grant site. And if you search for the phrase "R12KCN", you'll see six million dollars set aside for "Recruitment of Established Faculty", which Nicoloau's name attached.

So if this is going to happen, is it a good idea? I'm not asking if it's a good idea for K. C. Nicoloau; he's more than capable of looking after his own career. Is it a good idea for Rice, and for the CPRIT? The answer to that one depends on what everyone is looking for. If Rice is looking to make a big splash, that'll work just fine. But as another comment a bit further down in that above thread notes, this would be a departure for their chemistry department, because they'd actually de-emphasized organic synthesis a while back. Bringing in KCN will certainly re-emphasize it for them, if that's what they're after.

It's not where I would put my money, but (fortunately) I am not in charge of laying out millions to stock up a chemistry department. I've written several times (most recently here) about what I think of total synthesis at this point in the history of the science. If malevolent aliens suddenly filled our skies, threatening to vaporize the planet if we did not synthesize maitotoxin, I would unhesitatingly vote to give K. C. Nicolaou unlimited funding. That's what he does, and he's damn good at it. I just don't think - without the alien pressure and all - that it provides as much return for the time and money as other areas of science.

Comments (33) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: Chemical News


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

Is CPRIT located at Rice or elsewhere in Houston? Danishefsky founded the Chem, Bio, Bio-Chem Program at MSKCC when there was none. Maybe KCN wants to try to do the same at CPRIT and have his med chemists work elbow-to-elbow with the clinicians.

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2. David P on September 12, 2012 7:43 AM writes...

Watch the skies!

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3. ohnodontgo on September 12, 2012 7:54 AM writes...

August 2 recruiting update as of Aug 2. I suspect there are line items in those grants for A/C and anti-depressants. they spend some of that money on Houston is the third circle of Hades.

Looks like there was another meeting Sept 5, but no detailed updates are yet posted.

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4. Rogi on September 12, 2012 8:06 AM writes...

Geez, CPRIT sure sounds a lot like Cyprit, once the "why?" is adduced...

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5. MoMo on September 12, 2012 8:36 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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6. Former Owl on September 12, 2012 8:53 AM writes...

Rice isn't giving him $6 million, they're getting CPRIT to do so. Getting CPRIT to help fund KCN's recruitment package is a brilliant strategy, regardless of whether you think it's the right move for either party. Let's just hope he doesn't turn out to be another Ferrari who is technically on the faculty at Rice as part of a multi-institution deal, but has done very little for the campus and doesn't even have space there.

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7. Student on September 12, 2012 9:32 AM writes...

Maybe there was push from the MDACC side to help with their new drug discovery model (On a separate note, Depinho is trying hard to bring everyone he can down from Harvard)?
You can search for his grant on if any one is interested.

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8. Anonymous on September 12, 2012 9:47 AM writes...

Why single out KC, its the same damn situation for every organic chemist who makes natural products. All of it is a waste of time then. To me, all these posters just sound like a bunch of whiny bitches who got their asses spanked by the KC group in grad school.

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9. luysii on September 12, 2012 10:10 AM writes...

This is something none of us Woodward grad students would have predicted back in the early 60's. It's right out a Woody Allen movie. For details see --

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10. Anonymous on September 12, 2012 10:20 AM writes...

"I've written several times (most recently here) about what I think of total synthesis at this point in the history of the science"

At least the KC trained chemists seem to be good asset to companies, right?

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11. Anonymous on September 12, 2012 10:37 AM writes...


KCN alumni much?

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12. processchemist on September 12, 2012 11:17 AM writes...

Having worked on some projects focused on synthesis or semisynthesis of natural products or derivatives, Nicolau work has been an obvious reference. If the question is "Do we need another microtubule stabilzer/destabilizer?" the answer is "Probably yes" ( have a look at eribulin, and at all the efforts towards discodermolide - RIP). But total synthesis and medicinal chemistry based on natural products are two quite different things, I fear...

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13. LongLiveTheMBA on September 12, 2012 11:21 AM writes...

luysii, if you really got your PhD with Woodward as you claim, you must be familiar with how distant the man had turned toward the end of his life. The problem is that he set impossible standards that basically kicked off the beginning of the end; there has likely been no true bonafide revolution in total synthesis after Woodward (although there have been revolutions in synthetic methodology). Often the pioneers are the ones that start assembling the coffin and the nails.

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14. Anonymous on September 12, 2012 11:57 AM writes...

To me, all these posters just sound like a bunch of whiny bitches who got their asses spanked by the KC group in grad school.

KC, is that you?

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15. Milburt on September 12, 2012 12:07 PM writes...

It might be possible for him to retain his TSRI position and set up a franchise at Rice.

Why not? Since the granting agencies believe only a handful of 'proven' chemists exists we might very well see:

KC EAST (in a special arrangement with KFC).

But as an aside

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16. luysii on September 12, 2012 12:20 PM writes...

LongLiveTheMBA -- I don't have a PhD. I saw that research wasn't for me, so left after two years with a Masters and went to med school.

I certainly don't remember Woodward as remote back then ('60 - '62). The evening seminars were rollicking affairs and he happily interacted with all and sundry.

I will say that grad students didn't talk to him unless they had something significant to say. Except for the seminars, he pretty much holed up in his office.

I was shocked to hear that he essentially died of alcoholism just 17 years later. I thought the cigarettes (Benson and Hedges) would do him in.

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17. anon the II on September 12, 2012 1:05 PM writes...

I think "remote" is a pretty good thing to call a professor who doesn't talk to his graduate students. A professor that doesn't talk to his graduate students until they have something significant to say eventually gets graduate students with significant things to say whether they're true or not.

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18. Doug Steinman on September 12, 2012 1:41 PM writes...

I remember, back in the days when pharmaceutical companies still brought in chemistry consultants, that we had Professor Nicolau as a consultant for med chem. He was the worst consultant that we ever had. The best consultant that we ever had was Tohru Fukuyama who, at that time, was at Rice University. Go figure.

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19. nitrosonium on September 12, 2012 4:24 PM writes...

excellent point anon the II.....from the basement lab...i think you work in a lab upstairs. PS the LC/MS is still down (frowny face)

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20. Mark Emmert on September 12, 2012 4:46 PM writes...

Milburt, I think a better proposal would be:

KC Pac12
KC Big12
KC BigTen

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21. Anonymous on September 12, 2012 4:58 PM writes...

KCN has a daughter on faculty at Rice in another department. Maybe he's looking to spend his golden years closer to family? And by golden years I mean he's going to be swimming in a pool of grant money.

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22. InfMP on September 12, 2012 7:42 PM writes...

"A professor that doesn't talk to his graduate students until they have something significant to say eventually gets graduate students with significant things to say whether they're true or not."

Amazing quote, so true.

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23. Anonymous on September 12, 2012 10:30 PM writes...

Isn't it true that pharmaceutical companies prefer and hire synthetic chemists and later train them on the job to become medicinal chemists? Then how do they get one if KC likes don't do total synthesis all their lives

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24. luysii on September 13, 2012 9:31 AM writes...

In defense of Woodward (not that he needs it), I didn't talk to him much because the project I was working on was my idea, not his. It had to do with carbenes (something new and hot in the spring of '61).

My lab technique was terrible (something that kept me away from a surgical career). So I'd just report my (lack of) progress to the great man from time to time. A fellow grad student I stay in contact with told me that the idea was correct.

So, organic chemistry marched on without my particular contribution. It's great to read organic in retirement and see how far it's come. It beats watching patients with Alzheimer's disease deteriorate and being unable to help them.

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25. sulfonamide on September 13, 2012 2:42 PM writes...

is v fokin staying at scripps?

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26. Curious Wavefunction on September 13, 2012 4:22 PM writes...

luysii: From what Stuart Schreiber and others say in "The Billion Dollar Molecule", toward the end of his life Woodward did seem to have turned distant. His grad students especially could get little out of him compared to other faculty members.

Schreiber does attest that everyone seemed to be in a contest to prove to him that they could say or do something really clever, but personally I don't think that's a hallmark of an ideal student-professor relationship.

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27. luysii on September 13, 2012 5:58 PM writes...

Curious Wavefunction -- Well the (subsequently legendary) Woodward evening seminars were just that (even in '60 - '62). Sometimes there was a speaker, but there were always problems that Woodward would put up on the blackboard. That's when some serious king of the mountain began. The problems were never easy, and the solution was always clever. Anyone could go up to the blackboard give them a shot, profs, post-docs, grad students, and undergraduates. When you got one, you felt like king.

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28. me on September 14, 2012 3:36 PM writes...

derek you're just stupid!

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29. Alien on September 15, 2012 2:12 PM writes...

Derek's war on total synthesis is going nowhere. Not only total synthesis delivers life-saving drugs, but is by far the most important source of competent synthetic & medicinal chemists. Kishi's work on the total synthesis of halichondin and analogues had plenty to do with Eisai's discovery of Halaven (Eribulin), approved by FDA for the treatment of metastatic breast cancer in Nov. 2010. The supply problem of the marine anticancer drug Yondelis (Trabectadin, approved in EU) was solved by semisynthesis using an intact portion of Corey's total synthesis... Derek should know better.

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30. Anon on September 20, 2012 3:06 PM writes...

and it's official now...

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31. Me on September 20, 2012 3:44 PM writes...

Well, there you have it. I can't believe TSRI is losing another one. While natural attrition is normal, this appears to be an outflow of senior talent that goes beyond the norm. Anyone "in the know" have any insight?

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32. Anonymous on September 22, 2012 2:07 AM writes...

^31, Me:

Lack of the institutional leadership (TSRI-specific), funding climate (both TSRI-specific and in the US overall), and the growing attitude that chemistry at TSRI should serve biology and be funded by NIH (very TSRI-specific).

KCN is doing the absolutely right thing. Not the last loss, quite obviously. Yu, Fokin, ??? are being aggressively lured away. Who is going to be there to keep up the ratings and actually do the chemistry? A couple of heavy-hitters is not enough.

Disclaimer: I am not "in the know."

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33. Anonymous on September 22, 2012 3:17 PM writes...

#25, sulfonamide,

Fokin would be crazy not to move. The guy is hot, chemistry and all, and a super nice guy too. Surprised he hasn't jumped the ship. He can land a sweet position pretty much anywhere.

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