Nobel Prize 2015 Liveblog

Watching the live stream and weighing in with babble:

4:48 am – They’re here!

4:49 am – This always gets my blood pumping.

4:50 am – Wow…DNA repair, but not the 2015 Lasker Award winners for DNA repair.

4:52 am – The winning scientists: Tomas Lindahl, Paul Modrich and Aziz Sancar

4:58 am – I’d love to know how the committee arrived at these three scientists out of the many possibilities. This one is sure to be controversial.

5:04 am – Doesn’t appear that any of the laureates won a ‘pre-Nobel’ like the Lasker. Their Wikipedia pages are also sparse, though I’m sure that will change within the next few hours.

5:06 am – Looking for the seminal papers now…

5:16 am – Looks like the seminar Modrich paper is 1983 PNAS cited 286 times.

5:24 am – In addition to this year’s Lasker winners (Elledge and Witkin), you might also argue that Richard Wood could have a claim?

5:28 am – I’m not at all saying they don’t deserve it, but I’m having a hard time understanding how the Nobel committee picked these three scientists for DNA-damage repair. The technical document released by the committee isn’t really making it clear, either. I’d love to hear someone in this field weigh in.

5:30 am – And while people are already crying that biology stole yet another chemistry Nobel, this is a pretty molecular field. This is certainly in chemistry’s strike zone.

Predictions for the 2015 Nobel Prize in Chemistry

ChemBark MedallionThe announcement is less than an hour away, so I guess I should post my official list of odds against winning the 2015 Nobel Prize in Chemistry. Last Thursday, I weighed in with my predictions on an ACS Webinar, so I don’t feel too late. You can watch a recording of the session here.

As is the custom, the candidates are sorted below by discovery/invention rather than by scientist. The treatment of candidate scientists can get complicated. Some are listed more than once. In cases where someone not listed could easily share in the prize for the associated discovery, a “+” is listed. In cases where one of the scientists listed could easily not share in that prize, a “–” is listed.  The odds are reported in “odds against” format. Remember, this list attempts to address who will win the prize this year, not who should win the prize.

Odds Against Winning the 2015 Nobel Prize in Chemistry

Bioinorganic Chemistry, Gray/Lippard/Holm/–, 7-1
Lithium-Ion Batteries, Goodenough/Whittingham, 8-1
Nuclear Hormone Signaling, Chambon/Evans/O’Malley/–, 11-1
Polymer Science, Matyjaszewski/Rizzardo/+/– 15-1
Techniques in DNA Synthesis, Caruthers/Hood/+, 15-1
The Field (everything not listed), 16-1
Electrochemistry/Electron Transfer, Bard/Hush/Gray/–, 24-1
DNA-Damage Repair, Elledge/Witkin, 24-1
Protein Folding, Hartl/Horwich/+, 24-1
CRISPR/Cas9, Doudna/Charpentier/Zhang/–, 24-1
Unfolded Protein Response, Mori/Walter, 29-1
Organic Electronics, Tang/+, 34-1
Instrumentation/Techniques in Genomics, Venter/+, 49-1
Molecular Studies of Gene Recognition, Ptashne, 49-1
Transmission Electron Aberration-Corrected Microscopy, Haider/Rose/Urban, 74-1
Chemically-Amplified Photoresists, Frechet/Willson, 74-1
Drug Delivery/Tissue Engineering, Langer/+, 99-1
Mechanistic Enzymology, Walsh/Stubbe/+/–, 99-1
Solar Cells, Grätzel/+, 99-1
Nanotechnology, Lieber/Whitesides/Alivisatos/Mirkin/Seeman/+/–, 99-1
Applications of NMR Spectroscopy, Pines/Roberts/McConnell/+/–, 99-1
Synthetic Biology, Elowitz/Leibler/Collins/+/–, 99-1
Protein Engineering, Arnold/+/–, 149-1
Development of Chemical Biology, Schultz/Schreiber/+, 149-1
Click Chemistry, Sharpless/+, 149-1
Quantum Dots, Brus/+, 149-1
Self-Assembly, Whitesides/Nuzzo/Stang/–, 149-1
Pigments of Life, Battersby/+, 149-1
DNA Methylation, Cedar/Razin/+, 149-1
Small Regulatory RNA, Ambros/Baulcombe/Ruvkun, 149-1
Eukaryotic RNA Polymerases, Roeder, 149-1
Contributions to Theoretical Physical Chemistry, Rice/+, 149-1
Metal-Organic Frameworks, Yaghi/Ferey/Kitagawa/+/–, 149-1
Bio- & Organo-catalysis, List/Lerner/+/–, 149-1
Alternative Nucleic Acid Motifs, Rich/+, 149-1
Hydrogen Maser, Kleppner/+, 149-1
Assorted Protein Work, Levitzki/Hunter/+, 149-1
Novel Cancer Therapeutics, Ullrich/+, 149-1
Combinatorial Chemistry/DOS, Schreiber/+, 199-1
Leptin, Friedman/Leong, 199-1
Zeolites, Flanigan/+, 199-1
Fluorocarbons, DuPont/Curran/–, 199-1
Dendrimers, Frechet/Tomalia/+, 199-1
Organic Synthesis, Evans/Danishefsky/Nicolaou/Ley/Trost/Stork/Wender/Kishi/+/–, 249-1
Mechanical Bonds and Applications, Sauvage/Stoddart/+, 299-1
Contributions to Bioorganic Chemistry, Breslow/Eschenmoser/+, 299-1
DNA Electrochemistry, Barton, 299-1
Understanding of Organic Stereochemistry, Mislow, 399-1
Molecular Machines, Stoddart/Tour/+/–, 499-1
Molecular Recognition, Dervan/+, 999-1
Astrochemistry, Oka, 999-1


1. This rundown is meant to approximate fair odds (without a built-in vig). In case you don’t know how this way of reporting odds works, the listed numbers (“m-n”) mean the associated entry has an expected probabilty to win of n/(m+n). Thus, 4-1 odds equates to a 20% expectation of winning. If your pick wins at 4-1 and you’ve bet $1, you get paid $5 ($4 + your $1 bet back) minus the house’s vig.

2. I’m not taking any wagers.

3. The (qualitative) criteria that went into assigning these odds were discussed in a previous post. Results from old predictions were also discussed in a previous post.

4. Let me know if anyone on this list is dead. (It’s important, because awards are not made posthumously.)

5. Last year’s prize went to Moerner, Betzig, and Hell for the development of super-resolved fluorescence microscopy. I had the discovery listed as the favorite at 7-1, another big win for the ChemBark machine. Booyah.

6. Pre-Nobels awarded in the last year. There was no Wolf Prize in chemistry this year and the physics prize was not very chemical, so nothing new to add on that end. Stephen Elledge and Evelyn Witkin won the 2015 Lasker Award in Basic Medical Research for their work on biological responses to DNA damage. That work is definitely molecular in nature, and I’ve added it to the list with decent odds.

7. Everyone is shouting that CRISPR/Cas9 is going to win a Nobel, and I think that looks increasingly likely too. The main players seems to be Jennifer Doudna, Emmanuelle Charpentier, and Feng Zhang, but there is significant controversy over the patent rights. That controversy, coupled with the fact that the technique is relatively new (2012), probably hurts their Nobel chances for this year. The Nobel Committee is notorious about letting things sit before recognition.

8. I am significantly bumping up lithium-ion batteries this year and am lobbying hard that this is the discovery that should win. The technology is chemical in nature and incredibly important for the world we live in. It deserves a prize, and Goodenough is 93 years old. It is time for the Nobel Committee to get this done. Now.

9. The last five prizes have gone physical (super-resolved fluorescence microscopy), theoretical/computational (Karplus), biological (GPCRs), physical/materials (quasicrystals), and organic (organopalladium chemistry). It has still been a long time since something distinctly inorganic won, so perhaps it is due?

10. A quick look at the 2015 Nobel Committee reveals somewhat of a physical slant, but that discipline has won two years in a row.

11. And it’s the bioinorganic pioneers who I’m officially picking. We shall see within the hour!

Who Cares?

Another summer has come to an end, and we’re already two weeks deep into the fall semester. I spent part of my last day of summer freedom updating my calendar for the semester, and it was not pretty. So many classes, so many office hours, so many meetings.

I’ve seen a variety of approaches that professors take to the first day of class. Some just review the syllabus and call it a day. Some play icebreaking games and have students introduce themselves, while others dive right into the first chapter of the text. For me, I spend most of the first lecture addressing the question:

Why should I care about organic chemistry?

In broad strokes, we go over what we will learn in the class and why this information is important for scientists and health professionals. Here’s the opening slide from the deck:


If you can’t make a strong case why your class is important to students, why should they waste time studying it?

For me, the argument extends beyond why organic chemistry is important in and of itself. While I hope that some of my love of the subject rubs off, I am under no delusions that everyone will enjoy the class. Many students take it simply to fulfill a requirement for their degree or pre-health program. In these cases, I equate the class to Brussels sprouts. While the dish might be hard to stomach, eating it is good for you and necessary for mom to bring dessert. If you want to be a doctor, you’re going to have to do well in organic. So do it. If your career goal is what motivates you, let it motivate you to do well in orgo.

My view on “who cares?” or “why should I care?” extends to attendance. I don’t take attendance, because it’s irrelevant. My job as an instructor is to: (i) teach course material and (ii) judge student mastery of the material. If students see fit to invest their time in something other than my class, that’s just as likely a statement about the ineffectiveness of my lectures than a statement about their lack of motivation. The student is in the best position to judge my value to them as a teacher. If a student believes their time is better spent elsewhere, that’s fine. When grading, I’ll be calling balls and strikes the same way I would for all of the other students. Once again, attendance is irrelevant—except for mine.

Providing a compelling answer to “who cares?” is just as important outside of the classroom. When giving a talk, you need to invest a few minutes at the beginning to help your audience understand why your research is important. If you don’t, what’s going to stop people from checking their phones and tuning you out? If you find yourself having trouble explaining to your audience why your research is interesting or important, perhaps you should work on something else.

And when writing a paper, one of the first things you should address is why anyone should care about your work. If your reader doesn’t think your research is interesting or important, why should she read it? Why do so many papers in chemistry journals open with sentences like “Dullicin B is a toxin produced by the Ithacan slug, Limax cornellicus“?

Who cares?

Is your paper about the isolation of the compound? No. Do chemists care about mollusks? Not especially. So why would you waste prime real estate in your opening paragraph talking about these pieces of trivia? By all means, share these details, but do it later in the paper after you’ve already hooked the reader.

Journalists are taught this approach as the inverted pyramid, and they use it because readers are prone to move to the next story at any moment. Perhaps scientists would use a similar approach if anyone bothered to teach us about writing.

Suggestive Chemistry T-Shirts

My friend Tania put up this photo on her Instagram yesterday, which reminds me of a post I’ve wanted to write about chemistry T-shirts:



That is the most suggestive chemistry T-shirt that I’ve ever had the pleasure of owning. It was gifted to me in grad school by an awesome postdoc. Since it is much too risque for an assistant professor to wear, I felt the time was right to pass it on to the next generation of chemists. I know it is in good hands, as Tania has a collection going:



A quick survey of Google reveals some other dirty alternatives, but I think the round-bottom one is special because it’s from a legit glassware vendor (and one we still use to get our NMR tubes and caps).

Not how you spell that word.

It’s not polite to judge.

This could lead to confusion about the Burgi-Dunitz angle


The 2015-16 Chemistry Faculty Movement List

ed_academic_bigTwo major poaches were announced on Friday, so it’s a good time to start a poach list for the 2015-16 academic year. The first time I tried this was 2012-13, and See Arr Oh had one for 2014-15 and maintains one for 2015-16.

The criteria for inclusion on the list below will be: (i) a chemist or chemistry-rich scientist moving from one academic institution to another, (ii) with at least one of the institutions in the United States or Canada, and (iii) the move is announced between August 1st, 2015 and July 31st, 2016.

I’ll limit anything more than the basic facts to the comments section and keep the post itself uncluttered. Please share news of moves in the comments or e-mail me. Thanks!


Malika Jeffries-El (Iowa State to Boston University) – 8/28
John Rogers (Illinois to Northwestern) – 8/27


Last updated: 31 August 2015