Advertisement

Phil Baran: Molecule Magician

Professor, Chemistry, The Scripps Research Institute. Age: 36

By | February 1, 2014

FRANK ROGOZIENSKI/WONDERFUL MACHINEOrganic chemist Phil Baran’s early days as a graduate student at the Scripps Research Institute in La Jolla, California, were fraught with annoyance—but not of the scientific variety. “I was superfrustrated with the need to sleep,” he recalls. Baran bought a sleeping bag to keep in the lab, and on many nights, he curled up on a couch or sat on a chair in front of the fume hood to monitor a reaction instead of going home. “For me, it was like a religious experience coming here,” he adds.

Baran credits his talented high school chemistry teacher with igniting the spark of his interest in chemistry. Tom Codding let Baran experiment in the lab after school and, later, take chemicals home. Baran took core undergraduate classes at a community college near his Florida home and graduated with simultaneous high school and associate degrees.

Then, Baran enrolled at New York University (NYU), where he says he “basically lived in the lab” of David Schuster, whose team was trying to mimic a photosynthetic reaction center by joining fullerene and porphyrin compounds. Baran coauthored seven papers on their experiments. “I have never had anyone who worked as hard or accomplished so much,” says Schuster, adding that Baran “had enormous enthusiasm, enormous energy. I frequently found him asleep at his desk in the morning.”

Schuster took Baran to symphonies performed by the New York Philharmonic and got him working out in the gym; Baran still trains with a boxing coach to blow off steam. Schuster also introduced Baran to K.C. Nicolaou, who would mentor the young chemist at Scripps after he got his bachelor’s degree in chemistry from NYU.

In Nicolaou’s lab, Baran worked on the total synthesis of a class of natural products known as phomoidrides,1 which led to the development of methodologies that are still widely used by chemists. He says that the Nicolaou lab’s intense environment, combined with the focused graduate training at Scripps, fostered his success. “Especially for a nut like me, who didn’t want to do anything but research, this was the sort of place where you could thrive,” Baran says.

After a postdoc in the Harvard University lab of E.J. Corey, Baran returned to Scripps, where he is now a professor of chemistry. His group’s work focuses on the synthesis of natural products with medical and biological potential, such as compounds from cyanobacteria that have antifungal or antibacterial properties.2 He also studies the plant-derived ingenol,3 derivatives of which have been approved by the US Food and Drug Administration to treat cancer. Baran was named a 2013 MacArthur Fellow for his work.

In an award nomination letter shared with The Scientist, Corey describes Baran as “an incredibly bright, creative, and productive synthetic organic chemist who is destined to lead his generation to new heights of achievement.” Baran has also expertly trained chemists who now run independent labs and who sing the praises of not only his scientific and mentoring skills, but also his dedication to chemistry. “His enthusiasm just blew me away. It’s like a drug,” says Noah Burns, who was a graduate student with Baran and is now an assistant professor of chemistry at Stanford University. “He knows how to create the perfect environment for good science to happen, and that actually may be his biggest gift.”

References:

  1. K.C. Nicolaou et al., “Total synthesis of the CP molecules CP-225,917 and CP-263,114—Part 2: Evolution of the final strategy,” Angew. Chem. Int. Ed., 38:1676-78, 1999. (Cited 66 times)
  2. P.S. Baran et al., “Total synthesis of marine natural products without using protecting groups,” Nature, 446:404-08, 2007. (Cited 212 times)
  3. L. Jørgensen et al., “14-step synthesis of (+)-ingenol from (+)-3-carene,” Science, 341:878-82, 2013. (Cited 6 times)
Advertisement

Add a Comment

Avatar of: You

You

Processing...
Processing...

Sign In with your LabX Media Group Passport to leave a comment

Not a member? Register Now!

LabX Media Group Passport Logo

Comments

February 23, 2014

I love The Scientist because it keeps me informed about the important work in the field.  But I fear articles like this because it places the focus on something other than the work and the data that scientists produce, and there are already overwhelming fora for such things. 

This is a well-lauded scientist in no need of an extra boost or pressure to produce.  We all know stories of scientists who've risen and fallen because of extra attention and the extra pressure it produces.  Moreover, to build authority on the basis of something other than the quality of product ought to be suspect--man is driven by his passions, and we live in a heart-driven and heart-promoted society.  We know this.  But that needs to be put in check to do high-quality work.  

Please, make the data king, and keep it focused there.  We'll make sure to give hugs and kisses to all the scientists whose work is highlighted in its pages, don't worry.

Follow The Scientist

icon-facebook icon-linkedin icon-twitter icon-vimeo icon-youtube
Advertisement

Stay Connected with The Scientist

  • icon-facebook The Scientist Magazine
  • icon-facebook The Scientist Careers
  • icon-facebook Neuroscience Research Techniques
  • icon-facebook Genetic Research Techniques
  • icon-facebook Cell Culture Techniques
  • icon-facebook Microbiology and Immunology
  • icon-facebook Cancer Research and Technology
  • icon-facebook Stem Cell and Regenerative Science
Advertisement
Mirus Bio LLC
Mirus Bio LLC
Advertisement
HIWIN
HIWIN