Princeton Chemistry Department — the new Oberlin

When I got to grad school in the fall of ’60, most of the other grad students were from East and West coast schools (Princeton, Bryn Mawr, Smith, Barnard, Wheaton, Cal Tech etc. etc.), but there were two guys from Oberlin (Dave Sigman, Rolf Sternglanz) which seemed strange until I looked into it. Oberlin, of course,  is a great school for music but neither of them was a musician.  They told me of Charles Martin Hall, Oberlin alum and inventor of the Hall process for Aluminum — still used today.   He profited greatly from his invention, founding what is today Alcoa, running and owning a lot of it. He gave tons of money to the Oberlin Chemistry department, which is why it was so good back than (and probably still is).

What does this have to do with Princeton?   Princeton’s Charles Hall is emeritus prof Ted Taylor, whose royalties on Alimta (Pemetrexed), an interesting molecule with what looks like guanine, glutamic acid, benzoic acid and ethane all nicely stitched together to form an antifolate, to the tune of over 1/4 of a billion dollars built the new Princeton Chemistry building.  Praise be, the money didn’t go into any of the current academic fads (you know what they are), but good old chemistry.

An article in the 11 May “Princeton Alumni Weekly” (yes weekly) about the new building contains several other interesting assertions.  The old chemistry building is blamed for a number of sins e.g.,  “no longer conducive to the pursuit of cutting-edge science in the 21st century”, “hard to recruit world-class faculty and grad students to what was essentially rabbit warren” etc. etc.  Funny, but we thought the place was pretty good back then.

When the University president (Shirley Tilghman, a world-class molecular biologist prior to assuming the presidency — just Google imprinting) describes Princeton Chemistry as ‘one of Princeton’s “least-strong departments” you know there are problems.  Is this really true?  Maybe the readership knows.

Grad school applications are now coming from the ‘very top applicants’ — is it that easy to rate them?  This is said not to be true 10 years ago — wonder how those now with PhD’s entering the department back then feel about this.

Then there is a picture of a young faculty member “Abby Doyle” who joined the department 6 years after graduating Harvard in 2002.  As I recall there was a lot of comment on this in the earlier incarnation of ChemBark a few years ago.

The new building is supposed to inspire collaboration because of its open space, and 75 foot atrium, ‘few walls between the labs and glass is everywhere’. Probably the article was written by an architect.  The implication being is that all you need for good science is a good building, and that bad buildings can inhibit good science.  Anyone out there whose science has blossomed once they were put in a glass cage?

It’s interesting to note that the undergraduate catalog for ’57 – ’58 has Dr. Taylor basically in academic slobbovia — he’s only teaching Chem 304a, a one semester course “Elementary Organic Chemistry for Basic Engineers” (not even advanced engineers)

Comments anyone?

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  • Carbocat  On May 17, 2011 at 7:58 am

    Well, Princeton was never as well-known for chemistry as it was for math, physics, history etc. The current US News and World Report rankings place it at no. 15 or so where it has fluctuated for several years, way below Harvard, Stanford, Berkeley and Caltech. This is mainly because they have somehow never managed to attract world-class chemistry faculty of the kind found at these other places. For some reason chemistry was never high on Princeton’s list of things to improve. I wonder why.

  • MJ  On May 17, 2011 at 9:39 pm

    I remember that a couple of years ago, Princeton had a couple of well-known faculty members decamp for new institutions (McLendon, Warren, Lehmann, Walker & Kahne) in amidst some scurrilous rumors. This, surely, did not help things.

    Other than that, no real idea. Maybe there’s a tendency for chemistry departments to have a lower relative return on investment (e.g., X number of dollars yields a Y jump in the rankings for a physics or biology department; meanwhile, X dollars yields 0.5*Y jump in the rankings for a chemistry department), so Princeton tried to invest appropriately.

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