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UF Chemistry Alumnus Receives Nobel Prize

Robert H. Grubbs
Robert H. Grubbs

Robert H. Grubbs, who earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in chemistry from the University of Florida, has received the 2005 Nobel Prize in Chemistry.

Grubbs, an organic chemist whose work on catalysis has led to a wide variety of applications in medicine and industry, currently is the Victor and Elizabeth Atkins Professor of Chemistry at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena. Grubbs shares the prize with Yves Chauvin, a professor at the Institut Français du Pétrole in Rueil-Malmaison, France and Richard Schrock, a professor of chemistry at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The winners will share a $1.3 million prize, which will be presented in December at a ceremony in Stockholm, Sweden.

The trio was cited specifically "for the development of the metathesis method in organic synthesis." Metathesis is an organic reaction in which chemists selectively strip out certain atoms in a compound and replace them with atoms that were previously part of another compound. The end result is a custom-built molecule that has specialized properties that can lead to better drugs for the treatment of disease, or better electrical conducting properties for specialized plastics, for example.

In particular, Grubbs has worked on olefin metathesis. Prior to Grubbs's work, metathesis was poorly understood and of limited value to scientists. Grubbs developed powerful new catalysts for metathesis that enabled custom synthesis of valuable molecules, such as pharmaceuticals and new polymers with novel materials properties.

According to the Nobel citation, metathesis has already led to industrial and pharmaceutical methods that are more efficient and less wasteful, simpler, and more environmentally friendly. "This represents a great step forward for 'green chemistry,' reducing potentially hazardous waste through smarter production," the Royal Swedish Academy announced.

"Metathesis is an example of how important basic science has been applied for the benefit of man, society, and the environment," the citation continued.

Grubbs is a native of Kentucky who earned his bachelor's and master's degrees in chemistry from UF in 1963 and 1965, respectively. After completing his PhD in chemistry at Columbia University, he spent a year at Stanford University as a postdoctoral fellow, and then joined the Michigan State University faculty in 1969. He went to Caltech in 1978 with full tenure as a professor, and has been the Victor and Elizabeth Atkins Professor of Chemistry since 1990.

"An outstanding young professor at the time, Merle Battiste, allowed me to become involved in research in organic chemistry," Grubbs said.

"His guidance and support started me on my career. So yes, because of Merle, the foundation for my career was set at UF. Go Gators!”

Battiste, a professor emeritus of chemistry at UF, was Grubb's research advisor and remembers a "cooperative, enthusiastic" young man who enjoyed gabbing about chemistry. The two remain close friends.

"He and I would stay up late in my office and talk about chemistry," says Battiste, who retired two years ago. "We convinced him to change his major. I don't want to claim much of the credit. It's about his research within the last 20 years. But I was glad to be there at the beginning."

Grubbs has spent much of October at the University of Canterbury in Christchurch, New Zealand, as an Erskine Fellow. In an e-mail message, he singled out his students and collaborators and said that he was especially pleased that the Nobel committee had chosen to recognize the research that had taken place at Caltech.

"I'm excited for all the outstanding students and postdoctoral fellows who have contributed to this work over the years," Grubbs wrote.

Grubbs has been a member of the National Academy of Sciences since 1989, and was the 2000 recipient of the Benjamin Franklin Medal. He is the second UF graduate to receive a Nobel Prize. The first was Marshall Nirenberg, who earned a bachelor’s degree from UF in 1948 and a master’s degree in zoology in 1952. In 1968 he was honored with the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine for his investigations with the National Institutes of Health that led to the demonstration that messenger RNA (ribonucleic acid) is required for protein synthesis and can be used to decipher various aspects of the genetic code.

John Klauder John Klauder

Another UF connection to a Nobel Prize this year is the 2005 Nobel Prize in Physics, partially awarded to Roy Glauber, the Mallinckrodt Professor of Physics at Harvard University for "for his contribution to the quantum theory of optical coherence.” UF Physics and Mathematics Professor John Klauder helped to work out the mathematical theory of this phenomenon.

Part of the citation reads: “The mathematical formalism of quantized fields was developed in parallel with Glauber’s work on their applications. E.C.G. Sudarshan drew attention to the use of coherent state representations for the approach to classical physics; at this point he refers to Glauber’s work. Together with J.R. Klauder he proceeded to develop the mathematical formalism of Quantum Optics; their approach is presented in their textbook. After the initial contributions, many authors applied Glauber’s results to the rapidly evolving experimental situation in optical physics, thus creating the field today called ‘Quantum Optics’.”

The book by Klauder and Sudarshan titled Fundamentals of Quantum Optics is considered a classic in the field and was Originally published in 1968. It will soon be reprinted by Dover Press.

Klauder has known Glauber for many years. “We have met at many conferences over the years,” says Klauder, who received his PhD from Princeton University in 1959. “Since Glauber’s original work was done more than 40 years ago, I must admit I was surprised that he received the award now. Naturally, I am pleased for him and for the recognition that this award brings to the field of quantum optics.”

A former head of the Theoretical Physics and Solid State Spectroscopy Departments of Bell Telephone Laboratories, Klauder has been a visiting professor at Rutgers University, Syracuse University and the University of Bern. Since 1988, he has taught at UF.

Klauder has served on the Physics Advisory Panel of the National Science Foundation and been Editor of the Journal of Mathematical Physics, President of the International Association of Mathematical Physics, Associate Secretary-General of the International Union of Pure and Applied Physics, and he has authored more than 200 articles published in international journals.

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