Passion Drives New Nobel Laureate
Oct 16 2001 @ 10:02
For Barry sharpless, recipient of the 2001 Nobel Prize in chemistry, passion is the main driving force.SAN DIEGO (AP) - Barry Sharpless twists open a small bottle and pours garnet-colored crystals into the lid, gently sifting them.
``Isn't this gorgeous?'' he said of the chemical compound. ``Chemistry is so sensual.''
For the new Nobel laureate in chemistry, sensuality - understanding the human connection to the molecular makeup - is what fuels his passion for discovery.
Sharpless' interest in chemistry grew from his love of scent. From his childhood in Philadelphia, he remembers the dank smell of low tide and the time he spent working on fishing boats.
``I'm sort of a fetishist for smells. I'm always smelling,'' said the 60-year-old scientist. ``I taste many chemicals that I make today still. That's not normal. But I'll smell almost everything, even if it's dangerous.''
He remembers smells like some people remember faces. Even though Sharpless had asthma as a child, he imprinted in his memory the smell of smoke from his parents' cigarettes and the antiseptic his father, a surgeon, used on his hands.
Sharpless initially planned to follow his father into medicine. But one of his professors at Dartmouth spotted his love of chemistry and steered him in that direction instead, sending him to Stanford.
There he joined a group with chemistry professor Jim Collman, who recalled his talented student as ``extraordinarily creative.''
Sharpless was ``an absolutely flamboyant and nearly reckless person,'' Collman said. He would speed his motorcycle over the nearby hills and go skin diving in ice-cold waters in February.
``He would work through the night and just did everything with incredible passion,'' Collman said.
It was at Stanford in 1980 that Sharpless made his life-changing discovery. He noticed that a compound of titanium and tartaric acid from wine had a curious effect on certain molecules.
Nature makes most molecules in mirror-image forms, like right and left hands. Sharpless saw that the compound made one of the molecular ``hands'' disappear.
It was a ``eureka moment,'' he said.
Prior to the discovery, scientists making synthetic molecules, such as for drugs, had created sets of right- and left-handed molecules. But in applications, only one hand was beneficial while the other, in many cases, was toxic.
The drug thalidomide, for example, was taken by pregnant women in the 1960s to control nausea. One hand of the molecule did its job but the other caused birth defects.
Sharpless' discovery led to a process that allowed scientists to control which hand of the molecule was created, opening the door for the anti-depressant Prozac and many other drugs and products.
``In terms of the average person, they probably don't realize how it's changed their lives. They just take their medicine and don't think about the chemistry or where it came from,'' said Richard Schrock, an MIT professor who has known Sharpless for 35 years.
Sharpless and his colleagues immediately recognized the importance of the discovery. Wednesday's awarding of the Nobel Prize had been ``just a matter of time,'' said Gregory Fu, an MIT chemist who, as an undergraduate, worked in Sharpless' lab in the mid-1980s.
Sharpless won half of the $943,000 award; the rest was split between two colleagues - William S. Knowles of St. Louis and Ryoji Noyori of Nagoya University in Japan - who also helped solve the problem of mirror-image molecules.
Fu and others said they are pleased to see someone as engaging and unpretentious as Sharpless win the honor. Fu remembered admiring Sharpless' infectious love of chemistry, which was apparent in his class demonstrations.
Sharpless said he misses teaching undergraduates and seeing them make discoveries.
``So many people don't have the slightest idea how to find anything new because they just put one foot in front of the other all the time and they expect that to work,'' he said. ``And it works. I'm happy for them. They can enjoy life in a linear way, but that doesn't work for me. I just jump all over. My mind is a disaster area, just like my desk. But it serves me well.''
Sharpless said he is pleased to win the Nobel, but hopes it won't distract from his current work at the Scripps Research Institute. His new project, which he said will speed up the process of making medicines, ``is going to be more exciting than this stuff by a long shot.''
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