Reactions – Ed Grabowski

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Ed Grabowski was Vice President of Chemistry in the Process Research Department at the Merck Research Labs, and spent 39 years working on the design and development of practical processes for compounds of interest to the company. He is now a consultant in chemical development, and sits on a number of chemistry-related advisory boards.

1. What made you want to be a chemist?

I have always believed that our interests are directed by strong genetic components in our make-up, and mine drove me towards chemistry. I was fortunate that as a child growing up in New York City in the 1940s I became aware of the AC Gilbert Company who sold, by today’s standards, very interesting chemistry sets. I had my share of them, and spent much of my youth trying blow myself up and burn down the house down. Fortunately, I succeeded at neither. My first organic chemistry course in college set the die, and I decided to become an organic chemist. After my PhD, chance brought me to the Process Research Department at the Merck Research Labs, and I spent my entire career there trying to design syntheses of the company’s products and potential products, and understand the chemistry that we were using.

2. If you weren’t a chemist and could do any other job, what would it be – and why?

Taking the view from the 21st century, I would study genetics or biology, which is, of course, just the chemistry of some very big molecules. Now is the time to do this.

3. What are you working on now, and where do you hope it will lead?

I retired from Merck in 2004, and have been doing some consulting since, and have sat on a number of chemistry Advisory Boards. I try to bring both my knowledge and experience to my consulting work, to help companies circumvent some of their chemical and chemical development issues. There is a large school of thought these days that chemical development is a commodity that can be bought, like widgets. People seem to have forgotten that a strong component of creativity, lots of hard work, receptive minds and luck are needed for successful complex chemical development. On the advisory board side, I recently finished a 14 year stint with the American Chemical Society’s Petroleum Research Fund’s Advisory Board – the last 6 years as Chair of the Board. I take great pride and pleasure at having been associated with the PRF for so long. As a society we must support creative and bright scientists and engineers in pursuing the research areas that they think important, and that has been one of the PRF’s strong suits over the years. Right now I am on the Advisory Board of CENTC, a multi-centered NSF program in chemical catalysis. I will be part of the summer program this year, and am looking forward to working directly with the students, and giving them some insight into the opportunities in catalysis in the pharmaceutical industry. When not engaged in the above, I am a serious philatelist (read that as a stamp collector) and specialize in the French Colonies. I have published over a dozen philatelic articles in the last few years.

4. Which historical figure would you most like to have dinner with – and why?

That’s an easy one – Charles Darwin. I am simply in awe of his brilliance, and how he successfully developed a new field of science at a time when the tools to do so were so primitive. The foundations of evolution which he established are still being validated and extended today. I whole-heartedly agree with Prof. Dawkins view that evolution is ‘the greatest show on earth’. Should Darwin not be able to make it, I would not mind having dinner with Prof. Dawkins!

5. When was the last time you did an experiment in the lab – and what was it?

I was on the Editorial Board for Organic Synthesis a few years back. OS receives important chemical procedures from experts and pioneers; the Editors are responsible for checking and validating them; and they are published as a bible of established, working procedures for doing chemical synthesis. I was responsible for checking a new organometallic procedure that required considerable quantities of the triazine from 4-bromophenyldiazonium chloride and morpholine. A young MS chemist in my group was doing the actual chemistry, but I did not want her preparing large quantities of the triazine because of its possible carcinogenicity. So I prepared about 75g in three experiments. Of course my part of the checking was right out of Annalen in 1900; hers was right out of JACS in 2005, and required a lot more skill and attention to detail.

6. If exiled on a desert island, what one book and one music album would you take with you?

Ah, two more easy choices. The album would be Beethoven’s Opus 131 Quartet, simply the greatest music ever written, but I would take all seven of the performances I have as each presents a very different view of the work. The book would be Darwin’s On the Origin of Species.

7. Which chemist would you like to see interviewed on Reactions – and why?

Professor Blackmond mentioned both myself and Paul Reider in her comments for the blog, so I would think it only appropriate to get Paul’s point of view in these areas too. Paul and I worked together for more than twenty years and we were a great team – much like Laurel & Hardy, or Abbott & Costello, or Martin & Lewis. Others will have to decide the who’s who for the analogies. Paul has a unique perspective on chemistry and industry, and I think people would be interested in reading his views. He is now at the Chemistry Department at Princeton.