2013 Nobel Prize in Chemistry

This one has been long overdue… As you all likely know, the 2013 Nobel Prize has been awarded to Karplus, Levitt, and Warshel for their ground-breaking theoretical work that has enabled everything from modelling the way enzymes carry out chemical transformations to investigating receptor/ligand interactions in drug design (http://www.nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/chemistry/). Professor Ariel Warshel, whom I know personally (more on that soon), is well known for using a combination of quantum and classical mechanics to tackle the seemingly insurmountable challenges of complex protein simulation. Interestingly, and despite the nature of this work, one of Ariel’s points is that a great question is the most important thing in his branch of science. The computing power is secondary. He has maintained over the years that it is erroneous to assume that the amazing things possible now are there due to the emergence of really strong computers. In Ariel’s view, he was able to pose and answer profound questions 35 years ago as well as he is able to do so today. It is all about which questions you ask, I suppose.

In our lab, we feel the significance of the work credited with this year’s Nobel particularly strongly these days as we delve more and more into building a bridge between protein/small ligand crystallography and the design of chemical reactions that allow us to build better protein probes. Dr. Conor Scully, a research associate in our lab, has been the main driving force behind this project and the announcement of this year’s Nobel Prize really means a lot to all of us who use computers in efforts to understand chemistry.

I do have a bit of a personal connection with one of the winners (Ariel Warshel). When I came to the US in 1992, I had no training in synthesis. During my undergraduate years in Moscow I worked on developing an algorithm for enumerating reaction mechanisms with the help of graph theory (very obscure). So… I had a fellowship (which I declined) to go to Oxford and work with Prof. Graham Richards. I also had an offer from USC. Los Angeles sounded really exciting to me despite the 14 hour plane trip and the infamous Rodney King riots that burnt half of downtown in 1992 (my father said: “Where the hell are you going?”). But there I came. With my background, I started investigating the research advisors and Prof. Warshel was one of the people I spoke with at length. He is a real gentleman, originally from Israel, who was really nice to me, and it really meant a lot. However, synthetic and physical organic chemistry ultimately attracted me more and I joined the labs of Prakash and Olah. When I was watching the USC press conference dedicated to Warshel earlier today, Olah (the 1994 Nobel laureate) made a nice comment at the end, congratulating Ariel. He also said that they both arrived to USC at about the same time (end of 1970’s) and saw a significant transformation of the university. There was a cool moment during his commentary: Olah mentioned that football is great but it is research that should drive a university. This is one of his pet peeves and I fully agree with his stand. I am not sure you all know, but a football coach is typically the highest paid position at a major University in the US.

With this, I once again salute this year’s real heroes of science!

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