Reactions – Richmond Sarpong

Richmond Sarpong is in the Department of Chemistry at the University of California, Berkeley, and works on the development of strategies and methods for the total synthesis of complex natural products.

1. What made you want to be a chemist?

It’s a little bit of a clichéd story…I grew up in Ghana, West Africa, and my father, who is a medical doctor, worked closely with the World Health Organization. This was a time when a disease called ‘river blindness’ was really bad in West Africa. The company Merck came in with ivermectin and basically took care of the problem for free. I, like many, was very impressed. I cracked open my father’s copy of the Merck index and my eyes opened to chemicals and all the positive things they could do for all of us….medically of course.

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

I would have loved to be a professional tennis player. I love the combination of mental and physical command it requires…you have to compete in a controlled way. Alas, my limited mental and physical talent curtailed any opportunities for this.

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

In my group, we are becoming very good at making complex molecules. The ability to make molecules brings with it so much. It especially puts us in a position to make use of the things that we can make to answer chemical questions in biology. So we are currently looking to build molecules with important function to address some specific problems in cancer and asthma.

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

There are many I would like to have dinner with. Out of professional selfishness, I would say R. B. Woodward, who was amazing at designing strategies to attack complex molecule synthesis. I would really like to ask his opinion on several matters which are at the heart of a number of controversies in our field right now.

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

About a year ago, I ran a chemical reaction known as a Wittig reaction. I didn’t budget for the amount of time necessary for a work-up and passed it on to a very talented incoming graduate student. She has gone on to turn this half-done reaction into a series of publications…. I have come to realize that I am more useful to my laboratory by thinking critically about everyone else’s problems and getting the funding we need to continue our work than working in lab.

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

Depends on how long I would be away….could I bring a Kindle with the opportunity to constantly download more stuff? Well, if restricted to one book, again, out of a selfish professional interest, it would have be Anslyn and Dougherty’s Advanced Physical Organic chemistry book….then I can return someday and match wits with my students, who have all read it cover to cover. With regard to music, it will have to be Michael Jackson’s HIStory collection. That man is a musical genius! He has a song appropriate for every mood…if double CDs are not allowed, then I will “burn” one with Pat Metheny’s Still Life Talking, some Toto, Michael Franks and some Rick Astley…he is completely underrated!

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

Professor Brian Stoltz at Caltech. He was my postdoctoral advisor and always had fun, colorful stories to share. I think his stories will be quite inspirational for the audience of this blog.