It’s why I don’t read novels

You can’t make up stuff like this. A nephrologist whom I consulted about our daughter-in-law’s bout with pre-eclampsia, asked me about her brother-in-law when she found out I’d been a neurologist. Long out of practice, I called someone in my call group still practicing, only to find out that his son (who was just a little guy when we practiced) is finishing up his PhD in Chemistry from Princeton. Put this in a novel and no one would believe it.

The reason for the post, is that Princeton’s new Chemistry building, built to the tune of .25 gigaDollars, isn’t working very well. According to his son not all the hoods are functional. There are other dysfunctionalities as well, lack of appropriate space etc. etc. All is not lost however, the building is so beautiful (if non-functional) that it is used as a movie set from time to time. Any comments from present or past inhabitants of the new building?

Here’s the old post.

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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  • Tiger Chem  On November 13, 2014 at 1:45 pm

    Facilities are generally pretty good now, but I understand that there were some serious growing pains a few years ago.

    I don’t know about movies being filmed here (much more common at UBC, a place where I bumped into Shia Labeouf in our chem building) but what I can say is that every organization and their dog’s organization book the atrium for events. The labs are pretty well soundproofed, but it is still a little distracting to have your building become a zoo every weekend.

    • Bob Moriarty  On July 15, 2016 at 2:53 pm

      re the “academic slobbovia” comment in 1958 I took Professor Taylor’s special topics course in Syntheses Using Acetylenic Compounds in 1958.This was a rather new area in Organic Chemistry and the course was brilliant.No mention of his special field of heterocyclic chemisry was included and the focus was on long chain polyenes and selective redn of the triple bond(think vitamin A).In 1958 solvolytic reaction mechanisms research reigned supreme.As a grad student ,I was advised that the only field in which serious work was being done was that of Brown,Winstein,Bartlett(Paul).Complex organic synthesis was looked down upon.The only reason to synthesize a steroid was as contribution to conformational analysis with the hope that at some stage in the synthesis ,a non-classical carbocation might intervene.For assuring publishabilty this point should appear in the title”:A Novel Synthesis of Cortisone Involving A Non-Classical Ion”
      The complaints about shortcomings of the new buiding is a great example of looking a gift horse etc
      Bob Moriarty

      • luysii  On July 16, 2016 at 2:18 pm

        Bob — thanks for the reply — interesting to have the view of a grad student at Princeton at the same time. Undergraduate chem majors never saw Taylor. Wallis taught the introductory course, and I think Naumann taught the advanced. Schleyer, of course was very much into nonClassical carbonium ions, and as his undergrad advisees we heard a lot about Brown, Winstein (Schleyer called him solvolysis Sol) and Bartlett.

        Perhaps at Princeton synthesis was looked down upon, but not at Harvard circa ’60 – ’62 (Woodward, Corey).

        It is fascinating that at very long last we have excellent evidence for the existence of nonclassical carbonium ions —

  • Wavefunction  On November 14, 2014 at 4:53 pm

    There is little doubt that Princeton and MIT are not as big on chemistry as Harvard, Stanford, Berkeley and Scripps. Think about how many faculty members who later became famous have been lost by Princeton and MIT to these other schools. MIT chemistry in particular is famous for having top faculty (Whitesides, Nocera, Walsh, Roberts etc.) poached by other universities.

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