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American Chemical Society AMA: Hi, my name is Paul Helquist, Professor and Associate Chair of Chemistry & Biochemistry, at the University of Notre Dame. Ask me anything about organic synthesis and my career.
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Hi, my name is Paul Helquist, Professor and Associate Chair of Chemistry and Biochemistry, at the University of Notre Dame. I was a native of Northern Minnesota where I grew up literally in the “sticks” on a small lake surrounded by woods somewhere north of Duluth on the way to the Canadian border. I attended school in a small town of 2,000 people 15 miles away from our home and was the stereotypical example of the first member of our extended family to attend college. I enrolled at the University of Minnesota, Duluth, in 1965 on a free-ride scholarship, which paid for my full tuition, which was all of $400 per year in those days. I had the common problem of deciding upon a major and a career. I kept wavering back and forth among physics, astronomy, medicine, and dentistry but not yet chemistry. I initially opted for physics, but in the midst of taking some chemistry courses as required for physics majors, I was working on lab course experiments one day when a brand new, gung-ho assistant professor, Bob Carlson, came into the lab and said “Follow me.” I was a little taken aback, but he took me, greatly bewildered, to his very small two-person research lab and said “This is where you’re going to work” as a substitute for taking that lab course. That was a very fateful event. It was a synthetic organic chemistry lab. I quickly fell in love with the research, changed my major to chemistry, and was very fortunate to be able to publish two journal articles with Bob Carlson. My odyssey in synthetic organic chemistry continued at Cornell where I earned my M.S. and Ph.D. degrees in a little over three years under the direction of another young, super enthusiastic assistant professor, Martin Semmelhack, and at Harvard where I did postdoctoral research for a year and a half with Nobel Laureate E. J. Corey. I was then set to begin my own career at age 27, but I had tremendous difficulty making a decision about which of the positions to accept that had been offered to me at a pharmaceutical company, chemical companies, or universities. Well here I am now, after choosing the academic route and having been a faculty member for 42 years. In 1974, I began as an assistant professor at SUNY Stony, and in 1984, I was recruited to Notre Dame when it was entering a period of tremendous investment and growth in graduate and research programs. This career path has led to living and working in several places, including Minnesota, New York, Massachusetts, Indiana, and even in Sweden and Denmark, where I have held a number of visiting positions. I teach undergraduate and graduate courses in organic chemistry and run a research group, which has generated over 180 publications and patents in the following areas: development of new synthetic methods; design and development of transition metal reagents and catalysts for selective synthetic reactions; total synthesis of natural products synthesis; and applications to new pharmaceuticals, including antibacterial and antitumor agents and treatments for rare inherited diseases as part of an international network of collaborators in the U.S.A., Europe, and Asia. A therapeutic agent developed in my lab is currently being used in an FDA-approved human clinical trial. I have also served in many university administrative and service positions, as Chair of the Chemistry Board of Examiners for the Graduate Records Examination at the Educational Testing Service, as the Director of the National Science Foundation Workshop for College Teachers of Organic Chemistry, as a regional and national leader in the Siemens Math, Science, and Technology Competition, as a consultant to the pharmaceutical industry, and head of an Indiana state-wide program for clinical translational research at Indiana University, Purdue, and Notre Dame. Since 1981, I have offered special courses on advanced synthetic organic chemistry on over 140 occasions at sites throughout the U.S.A., Canada, and Europe under the auspices of the American Chemical Society and several other sponsors. My present ACS course, “Organic Synthesis: Methods and Strategies for the 21st Century Chemist,” emphasizes the latest developments in this field and is next scheduled for this coming November 7-8 in San Francisco followed by several offerings in 2017. I am very enthusiastic about answering as many questions as time permits about any of the aspects of the career area in which I have spent the last half century. I will be back at 11:00 a.m. EDT to answer your questions! I am now on line until noon EDT. I will be off line until later in the afternoon after I finish heading a faculty meeting and a few other duties. I am back again (2:00 pm EDT). I will mix the rest of the afternoon with meeting in my office with my research students and with responding to your Reddit questions. OK, I have run out to time for today at 4:45 pm EDT. I greatly appreciate the huge number of questions and responses, including ones that were in direct contrast with mine. That is what makes for a good chat room.