Nov. 3, 2005 • Volume 14 Number 5

Vanderslice Millennium Professor of Chemistry Amir Hoveyda.

Chemistry Research That Takes the Prize - Practically

Hoveyda Nobel citation shows continued rise of the sciences at BC

By Greg Frost
Staff Writer

If you read through the official materials prepared by the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences for this year's Nobel Prize in chemistry, you will see why Boston College has a big reason to be proud.

There, among the scientific jargon and the diagrams of complex chemical reactions, is the name of Joseph T. and Patricia Vanderslice Millennium Professor of Chemistry Amir Hoveyda. It's not just a passing reference, either: Hoveyda's name appears four times in the text and footnotes.

It is a sign of how far the sciences have evolved at BC that Hoveyda's research is being mentioned in the same breath as that of this year's three chemistry laureates, Yves Chauvin of the Institut Francais du Petrole, Robert Grubbs of the California Institute of Technology and Richard Schrock of MIT.

Hoveyda has a close working collaboration with Schrock: The two have published dozens of papers together since 1997 and have shared a joint NIH grant since 1999. Schrock-Hoveyda catalysts are being sold commercially, and the two are close friends.

"He is a mentor and an older brother to me," Hoveyda says of the MIT chemist.

Schrock and the Nobel Foundation have invited Hoveyda and his wife to attend this year's award ceremony in Stockholm as official guests, and Hoveyda says he will proudly represent Boston College at the December event. But the Iranian-born Hoveyda is also not shy about expressing his desire to someday return to Sweden under different circumstances.

"Like any other ambitious scientist, it is my dream that some day I will be going there to bring back a medal," he says.

Olefin metathesis, the reaction that was the focus of this year's Nobel Prize in chemistry, has been compared to a microscopic dance in which atom groups change partners to form new molecular couples.

In fact, when the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences announced this year's laureates on Oct. 5, they did something a little different: Two male committee members took to the floor and danced with two women, swapping partners to illustrate the chemical reaction.

To take that analogy one step further, Hoveyda could be considered a choreographer of sorts - someone who teaches the molecules the right dance moves needed to break up and form new compounds.

This is accomplished through the use of molybdenum- and ruthenium-based catalysts, which Hoveyda has been developing since coming to BC in 1990. The catalysts have opened up a new frontier in organic chemistry that is influencing how new medicines and materials are made.

The catalysts make it possible for manufacturers to assemble chemical compounds at a fraction of the price it would otherwise cost, and often with much less risk to the environment.

"[Hoveyda's] research has been extremely important to the field of olefin metathesis in general, and to the field of asymmetric metathesis in particular," said Schrock in a recent interview via e-mail.

In addition to his work with Schrock, Hoveyda has made substantial improvements to some of Grubbs' chemistry.

Hoveyda-Grubbs catalysts - the name refers not to a collaboration between the two scientists but to the contributions both men made to the chemicals' development - are sold commercially by Aldrich, a leading supplier of research chemicals. Hoveyda says these catalysts, developed in his laboratories, are among the most popular olefin metathesis catalysts in the world. All the catalysts developed by Grubbs, Schrock and Hoveyda are licensed by Materia, a company in Pasadena, Calif.

Prof. David McFadden, chairman of the Chemistry Department, says the mention of Hoveyda's work alongside that of Schrock, Grubbs and Chauvin in the written materials for the 2005 Nobel Prize in chemistry is "most significant" - both for Hoveyda and for Boston College.

"Professor Hoveyda's work was highlighted because he has done more to extend the ideas elucidated by Schrock and Grubbs in new directions than any other chemist in the world," McFadden says.

"That Hoveyda's laboratories are at Boston College makes an enormous positive difference to the reputation of Boston College as an international center of scholarly research in organic chemistry."

Hoveyda, who earlier this year turned down an offer by Oxford University to move to Britain and become the Waynflete Professor of Chemistry, says the fact his name is mentioned in the official materials surrounding this year's Nobel Prize says a lot about what has been accomplished at BC and its Chemistry Department over the last two decades.

"It means that you can establish world-class research programs in this university if you are properly supported by the administration and your colleagues," he says, adding that the importance of quality students cannot be underestimated.

"We are only as good as our graduate students. Without high-quality graduate students, you can't do high-quality work."

He says the caliber of graduate students in his department has improved dramatically since he first came to BC.

"When I first came here, I designed my projects so that my students could do them. Now I don't do that, because graduate students of mine are not my limitation anymore," he says.

Looking forward, he says it is important that BC build upon the successes of the last two decades.

"The quality of organic chemistry graduate students in this department is as good as anywhere else," Hoveyda says. "In the next 15 years, we better do something better or else we're just resting on our laurels."

top of page