ACS – Thanks for the memories


I’ve been attending so many interesting sessions that it’s been difficult to find time to blog, but I’m going to redress the balance now. First off, I just wanted to mention a terrific talk yesterday from John Bercaw, which gave an update on his work on the mechanism of the Shilov reaction. If you’re not familiar with this reaction, it was one of the seminal discoveries that underpins modern C-H activation chemistry. Unfortunately, it’s stoichiometric, but Bercaw is hoping to make a catalytic version that will provide a practical method of converting alkanes into alcohols. That goal is still some way off, but he’s found some promising water-compatible catalysts (water compatibility will be essential) that look like a good step in the right direction. I was particularly impressed by his obviously meticulous approach to research – if anyone can crack this problem, then he can.

Then yesterday afternoon, I attended a star-studded symposium that celebrated the 100th birthday of the organic chemistry division of the ACS. With speakers such as David MacMillan, Ken Houk, Larry Overman, K. C. Nicolaou and Barry Sharpless, this was the must-see event of the symposium, and the massive ballroom venue was packed. Befitting the anniversary theme, each speaker gave their perspective of historical advances from their fields of interest.

So how do you pick out a highlight from such an illustrious line-up? With difficulty, but my favourite speaker was John Roberts, the emeritus professor from Caltech. At 90 years old, he’s certainly the most senior speaker that I’ve seen at a conference. I have a fondness for the history of chemistry, so I lapped up Roberts’ stories of his early career, and his reminiscences about the leading figures of the time. For example, R. B. Woodward was described as having three trademarks – he always carried a cigarette, always used a yellow pencil and invariably dressed entirely in blue. Other snippets included the details of Roberts’ work during the Second World War, when he was co-opted onto a project to find a way of extracting liquid oxygen from air at low pressure (because airplanes at the time carried oxygen tanks, which made them rather vulnerable to fires).

Looking back at his project work as a student, Roberts commented that he was lucky in being able to work on several completely different areas. Nowadays, he commented, graduate students specialize early on, and so they miss out on the benefits of a diverse practical training. The solution, he says, is to provide opportunities for undergraduates instead. In this respect, he feels that summer-school research opportunities for undergraduates are essential. Do any of you think that grad students are forced into specializing too soon?


Andrew Mitchinson (Senior Editor, Nature)

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