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Research: Scientists With The Right Chemistry To Win A Nobel Prize

What does it take to win the Nobel Prize in chemistry? Does the prize-winning research involve, for instance, discovering a never-before- seen molecular structure? Or must one do something bordering on alchemy? In this issue, The Scientist continues its three-part series on potential candidates for the Nobel Prizes. Two weeks ago, the focus was on physicists (The Scientist, Sept. 3, 1990, page 16). Now, The Scientist examines citation data compiled by the Philadelphia-based Institute for Scien

By | September 17, 1990

What does it take to win the Nobel Prize in chemistry? Does the prize-winning research involve, for instance, discovering a never-before- seen molecular structure? Or must one do something bordering on alchemy?

In this issue, The Scientist continues its three-part series on potential candidates for the Nobel Prizes. Two weeks ago, the focus was on physicists (The Scientist, Sept. 3, 1990, page 16). Now, The Scientist examines citation data compiled by the Philadelphia-based Institute for Scientific Information to survey high-impact chemists who could be contenders for the 1990 Nobel Prize.

It should be noted that because a large number of citations tends to indicate scientists who have been active researchers for a number of years, younger--but perhaps as influential-- researchers may be overlooked. One such scientist is Ahmed Zewail of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena. Zewail, 44, has attained recognition for his femto-chemistry studies, which involve the use of ultrafast lasers to record the behavior of molecules during reactions (The Scientist, May 29, 1989, page 17). Important as his research is, he has not yet garnered a large enough number of citations to be selected here. It is conceivable, however, that the Nobel Committee may choose to honor such a researcher.

Even with this apparent shortcoming, citation histories are still a way of preliminarily identifying the world's top scientists. High citation records and stellar research careers generally go hand-in-hand. With this in mind, The Scientist presents its forecast for the 1990 Nobel Prize in chemistry.

Should the Nobel committee choose to honor research in biochemistry, then Donald M. Jerina, 50, of NIH's National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases, in Bethesda, Md., is a possible contender. Jerina is an organic chemist/biochemist. Chief of the oxidation mechanisms section at NIDDK, he is perhaps best known for his research on arene oxides. His most cited paper (Science, 185:573-82, 1974) explores arene oxides and their role in drug metabolism. In addition to research on the biochemistry of arene oxides, Jerina has investigated the synthesis of peptides and oligonucleotides on polymer supports, chemical carcino- genesis, microsomal hydroxylation, and other biochemical mechanisms. Jerina, who was the 33rd most cited scientist for the period 1973 to 1984, has contributed to more than 60 articles that have been cited in excess of 50 times each. He has been the recipient of several awards, including the Hillebrand Prize from the American Chemical Society (1979).

Should the committee decide to honor breakthrough work on molecular structure and bonding, Frank A. Cotton, 60, of Texas A&M University, College Station, may be a strong contender. Cotton, who is Robert A. Welch Distinguished Professor of Chemistry at the university as well as the director of its laboratory for molecular structure and bonding, was the 20th most cited scientist for the period 1965 to 1978, and the 54th most cited for 1973 to 1984. He also ranks among the top 0.2 percent of cited researchers (out of 1.3 million) for the period 1981 to 1988. Cotton's most cited paper--on which he was a coauthor with Charles S. Kraihanzel, then a postdoctoral fellow--presented a way to use the infrared spectra of metal carbonyl molecules to glean information about their structure and bonding properties (Journal of the American Chemical Society [JACS], 84:4432-8, 1962). In addition to this paper, Cotton has contributed to more than 140 highly cited articles (more than 50 citations) that have dealt with the molecular structure and bonding of inorganic compounds as well as the structures of enzymes and proteins.

Cotton, who is a member of numerous scientific societies (including the National Academy of Sciences, the Italian Academy of Sciences, and the Royal Danish Academy of Science and Letters), has won many awards throughout his career. Two of his most prestigious are the National Medal of Science (1982) and Cleveland-based Case Western Reserve University's Michelson-Morley Award (1980)--an honor that could be considered a "predictor" prize for the Nobel, since two past Nobel Prize winners previously received this award. Cotton received the Michelson-Morley Award for his "unparalleled impact on modern inorganic chemistry." He was cited for his research on bond structures of metal atoms and for describing one of the earliest molecular structures of an enzyme.

Elias J. Corey, 62, of Harvard University is a strong candidate if the committee decides once again to honor a scientist for work in chemical synthesis. In 1987, for example, the prize for chemistry went to a trio of researchers (Charles L. Pedersen, Donald J. Cram, and Jean-Marie Lehn) for their work in synthesizing molecules that mimic biological processes. Corey, who ranked 21st in 1965-78 and 133rd in 1973-84 among cited scientists, accumulated well over 5,000 citations for his papers during the period 1981 to 1988, placing him among the top 100 cited researchers for this period.

His most frequently cited paper (JACS, 87:1353-64, 1965) deals with the formation and application of two ylides to organic synthesis. Corey's research interests (which include stereochemistry as well as synthetic and theoretical organic chemistry) have earned him a number of awards, including the American Chemical Society's Award in Pure Chemistry (1960), the Franklin Medal from the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia (1978), the Paracelsus Award from the Swiss Chemical Society (1984), the V.D. Mattia Award from the Roche Institute of Molecular Biology in Nutley, N.J. (1985), the Wolf Foundation Prize for Chemistry (1986), and the National Medal of Science (1988).

Yet another strong contender in the field of chemical synthesis is Barry M. Trost. Trost, 49, professor of chemistry at Stanford University, Calif., ranked 198th among cited scientists for the period 1973 to 1984 and was among the top 0.2 percent of the 1.3 million cited researchers during the last decade. He has written well over 50 articles that have been cited more than 50 times each. His research interests include the development of novel synthetic methods as well as the synthesis of natural products. One of his most cited papers discusses the sulfenylation and dehydrosulfenylation reactions of esters and ketones (JACS, 98:4887-4902, 1976). Trost, who is a member of the National Academy of Sciences, received the American Chemical So-ciety's Award for Pure Chemistry in 1977.

Another theoretical chemist who should be considered a serious contender for the Nobel Prize is Michael J.S. Dewar of the University of Florida in Gainesville. Dewar, 72, ranked 32nd among cited researchers for the period 1965 to 1978, and 102nd for the period 1973 to 1984. A prolific author, he has contrirutud to more than 130 articles that have been cited more than 50 times each. His most cited paper (JACS, 97:1285, 1965) presented a parametric quantum mechanical molecular model to aid chemists in their studies of chemical reactions and reaction mechanisms. De-war continues his research in reaction mechanisms as well as in other areas of organic, inorganic, physical, and theoretical chemistry. He has won several awards, including the Howe Award from the American Chemical Society 81962) and the Davy Medal from the Royal Society of Chemistry (1982). He is a member of the National Academy of Sciences and a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

Perhaps one of the strongest players in the quantum mechanics arena is John A. Pople of Carnegie-Mellon University in Pittsburgh.

Pople, 64, was the most cited chemist during the period 1965 to 1978, with more than 12,000 citations to his works. He ranked 159th among cited scientists for the period 1973 to 1984, and is among the top 0.2 percent of cited researchers for 1981 to 1988. In the mid-1960s, Pople and his colleagues published a string of papers on the approximate self-consistent molecular orbital theory. This theory, which is based on quantum mechanics, is used to calculate charge distributions and electronic dipole moments in organic molecules. Pople, who is a member of the National Academy of Sciences, has received a number of awards. His honors include the Irving Langmuir Award (1970), the Pittsburgh Award (1975), and the Linus Pauling Award (1977), all from the American Chemical Society; the Marlow Medal (1958) from the Faraday Society; and the Senior Scientist Award (1981) from the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation.

Should research on the structure and properties of proteins pique the interest of the Nobel committee, then the name of Harold Abraham Scheraga, 68, of Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y., may arise. Scheraga, who ranked 37th (1965 to 1978) and 137th (1973 to 1984), has devoted a considerable portion of his career to the study of the physical chemistry of proteins and other macromolecules. He is the author of more than 90 highly cited articles. His two most cited papers (Journal of Chemical Physics, 36:3382-3400, 1962; and 66:1773-89, 1962), cowritten with Cornell's George N‚methy, presented models for the thermodynamic properties of liquid water and of hydrophobic bonds in proteins. Like the other "nominees" on the list, Scheraga has won a number of awards in recognition of his achievements and is a member of several scientific societies.

James A. Ibers, 60, of Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill., is another chemist who has concentrated his efforts on determining the structure of molecules, particularly of inorganic substances. Ibers, who was the 50th most cited researcher for the period 1965 to 1978 and the 173rd most cited for 1973-84, has published more than 75 articles that have been cited in excess of 50 times each.

His most cited paper is one that explores the metal and nitrogen multiple bonds in a compound that contains several such bonds between nitrogen and rhenium (Inorganic Chemistry, 6:197-204, 1967). Throughout his career, Ibers has published numerous structural crystallography papers that detail the crystal and molecular structures of many organometallic compounds. A member of the National Academy of Sciences, Ibers received ACS's Award for Inorganic Chemistry in 1978.

With the current unrest in the Middle East--the source of most of the world's oil--the Nobel committee may be inclined to honor a chemist whose research may one day wean the world of its oil dependence. One such scientist is George A. Olah of the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. Olah, 63, ranked 42nd among cited scientists in the period 1965 to 1978 and 274th during 1973-84. He has written more than 70 papers that have been cited more than 50 times each. His most cited paper (JACS, 91:5801-10, 1969) presents structural data on stable carbonium ions determined through 13C nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopy. Olah is best known, however, for his research on chemical reactions in what he has termed "superacids." Through a series of papers published in the late 1960s, Olah and his colleagues showed that in extremely strong acidic solutions, normally unreactive molecules (such as hydrocarbons) can become reactive (JACS, 90:2726, 1968; 91:2929, 1969; and 91:3261, 1969). Such synthetic reactions could be used to convert substances such as methane into synthetic fuels. In 1987, Case Western Reserve University presented Olah with its Michelson-Morley Award for his research on synthetic reactions.

Olah, who is the cofounder and director of the Donald P. and Katherine B. Loker Hydrocarbon Research Institute at USC, is a member of NAS and an honorary member of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences.

Last on the list (but by no means the least) is Harry B. Gray of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena. Gray, 54, who is the director of Caltech's Beckman Institute, ranked 186th among cited scientists for the period 1965 to 1978, and 332nd for the period 1973 to 1984. He also ranked among the top 0.2 percent of cited researchers for 1981 to 1988, with almost 2,000 citations of his works.

Gray began his career by concentrating on inorganic reactions and reaction mechanisms. More recently, his interests have centered on electron transfer in proteins and other bioinorganic reactions. He has also actively pursued the mechanisms involved in inorganic photochemistry. Such research, which earned him the 1991 Priestley Medal from the American Chemical Society (that society's highest award), could prove instrumental in the development of artificial photosynthetic systems. Gray has won numerous other awards, including the ACS Award in Pure Chemistry (1970), the National Medal of Science (1986), and the American Institute of Chemists' Gold Medal (1990). He is a member of several societies, including the National Academy of Sciences, the Royal Danish Academy of Science and Letters, and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

Just what sort of chemistry research will win a scientist the Nobel Prize in chemistry? The answer is just a month away.

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