Convocation 2008 Address: Professor Daniel J. O'Leary

Story posted September 03, 2008

"Transformative Chemistry"
Daniel J. O'Leary, John S. Osterweis Professor of Chemistry and Biochemistry

Bowdoin College's 207th Convocation was held Wednesday, September 3, 2008, in Memorial Hall, Pickard Theater. Following is the text of Professor Daniel J. O'Leary's address.

President Mills, thank you for your kind introduction and I offer my greetings to the Bowdoin community and guests who are with us today. It's a distinct honor to deliver a few words as we begin the school year.

Dan Oleary
Professor Daniel J. O'Leary

I must confess up front that I feel a special kinship with the first-year students, the class of 2012. Like you, I am new to the College and have much to learn. But we've chosen wisely, haven't we? It promises to be an exciting year.

While this is my first year as a Bowdoin faculty member, it turns out that Bowdoin College played an important role in helping me realize my goal of teaching at a liberal arts college nearly 15 years ago. Thanks to Professor Rick Broene, I was able to visit Bowdoin and give a practice seminar prior to my first job interviews. I've told many people over the years that my Bowdoin "short course" was an important part of my preparation prior to joining the Pomona College Chemistry Department.

It was watching my professors in action at Linfield and a summer undergraduate research experience that really got me thinking about what path to take in life. This past year I sent an email to a group of friends describing our move from California to Maine. A reply came back from Chuck Wade at the IBM Research Center in San Jose. He wrote "Wow! Congratulations. It should be exciting. I know some of the Bowdoin Chemistry Department — A very impressive group." The fact that Chuck and I were exchanging emails defines the theme of this address.

Chuck Wade, it turns out, gave me my first independent research opportunity as an undergraduate. That experience enabled me to attend graduate school at UCLA, which in turn opened the door to post-doctoral study at Harvard. For me, and I bet for many in this room, it really comes down to the depth and duration of the connections that happen in an environment such as this. I've worked with some remarkable people over the years, and they have changed me in ways that I never would have predicted and, I suppose, I may have changed a few of them in kind. And so, this is a story about some of those transformations.

Today you'll hear about a few friends as they made their way through a liberal arts curriculum. A common thread running through each story is a strong bond between me and a student; these usually began in the context of advising or coursework and then extended well beyond those formal settings. One of the points I want to make is that the excellence of schools like Bowdoin is critically dependent upon these synergies. The connections you make during your time here will unlock not only your future, but that of the people around you and, accordingly, the College itself.

As students, one of your challenges will be finding a balance between breadth and depth in your education. A great way to explore an issue in depth is to perform an independent study or perhaps conduct an honors project. Working closely with a faculty member is a defining characteristic of a liberal arts college, and the majority of Bowdoin students take advantage of this opportunity.

I'd like to describe a collaboration between my research group and Professor Bob Grubbs at Caltech that exemplifies the rewards of such research. In the early 1990s, The Grubbs group had developed a new type of catalyst that created quite a buzz among chemists. To the casual observer it was a burgundy-colored powder, but to chemists it opened the door to making certain chemical bonds in an efficient and "green" manner by virtue of minimizing the generation of toxic by-products. Known as a metathesis reaction, it has been likened to a dance in which two couples effortlessly exchange partners.

There are now literally thousands of applications of this type of chemistry, which range from new polymers to streamlined syntheses of pharmaceutical targets against bacterial infections, cancer, HIV-AIDS, arthritis and Alzheimer's disease.

When I visited Caltech for a sabbatical in the late 1990s, however, the catalysts were fairly new and the group was working hard to demonstrate their utility. Helen Blackwell, a graduate student in the group, was interested in using the catalyst to modify the structure of helical peptides — short strands of amino acids linked together in a sort of spiral staircase. Our contribution to the project was to use nuclear magnetic resonance (or NMR) spectroscopy to test whether or not modified peptides retained their helical shape. A cousin of the more familiar MRI — magnetic resonance imaging used in medicine — NMR allows scientists to determine the structure and behavior of molecules in solution.

Jack Sadowsky solved this problem as part of his Pomona undergraduate senior thesis, which he filed in the year 2000. His thesis was so good that it formed the basis of a paper that we submitted for publication.

joc_cover_small200.jpg

As we were preparing our paper, Jack suggested we also submit an artistic image to be considered for the journal cover. Jack had just taken a course in the Art & Art History Department and he could not wait to unleash his new-found skills. The image showed his and Helen's molecule as a paper helix with a large metathesis-derived staple as the connector. Jack's paper was accepted, and his artwork became the journal cover.

In 2004, we were excited to learn that a Harvard group had discovered that peptides bearing a similar modification had potential as anti-cancer agents. It remains to be seen if these compounds, now generally referred to as stapled peptides, will be active in the clinic, but it is neat to know that our work is relevant in the ongoing war on cancer. I doubt any of us would have predicted such an outcome, and this is one of the joys of doing basic research — you just never know where it will lead.

Of course, a good research project usually generates more questions than answers. It certainly did in Jack's case. Amie Boal followed up on some of Jack's observations for her senior thesis and this in turn led to a collaboration with a group at the University of Padova in Italy. Amie recently earned her Ph.D. at Caltech and was honored with a major dissertation prize. One of the highlights of my year was attending her thesis defense, where I learned about her contributions to a new understanding of DNA repair.

A valuable aspect of a research project is learning how to deal with adversity. This leads me to my former student Ben Allen. He ran into a major roadblock while working on his thesis project. His patience was tested and he got more than a little discouraged while trying to get an experiment to work. He took some time off from the beakers and studied his system from a computational standpoint. He did this on his own, and excited by those calculations, he found a way to make his experiment work. I then challenged him a step further and asked him to submit his work to the Journal of the American Chemical Society. Ben's paper, which he wrote entirely by himself, was accepted — a remarkable accomplishment for an undergraduate. My research group now makes routine use of computational chemistry, and I credit Ben for leading us in that direction.

Projects like these require a sustained level of activity and commitment, often over the course of several summers and school years. Students like Jack, Amie, and Ben exemplify for me what is best about teaching and doing research in a liberal arts setting. First, they are passionate about many things; they are tenacious and independent; opinionated but not overbearing; cool under pressure; and in possession of a generosity of spirit which continues to this day. They changed me. They changed me to this day.

I've also been amazed to find that meaningful discoveries can take place on a shorter timescale and in the context of what some might call ordinary coursework.

In my NMR spectroscopy course, students build a project around a molecule of their own choosing to learn advanced techniques. One year, Janet Tung and Angelo Gonzales came to me wanting to study "the stuff in the pink medicine your daughter takes." We secured a sample of the compound and they went about their work. On the day of class presentations, they made what I thought was a rather bold assertion — that prior workers had published incorrect data and they were now in a position to get it right. Looking at their results, I had to agree. Of course, their discovery was not a game-changer by any stretch of the imagination. It was an incremental refinement — although in a compound that is pretty well known, a derivative of penicillin. But that didn't matter much to me. What changed me on that particular day was watching two students, with a twinkle in their eyes, confidently challenge what was supposed to be a solved problem.

Their work later appeared as a peer-reviewed journal. Janet, a chemistry major, went on to a Fulbright fellowship in Germany and then graduated from Berkeley's law school. Angelo, also a chemistry major, spent a number of years as a Senate aide in Washington D.C., and is currently finishing his doctorate in political science at Berkeley. His dissertation, which I'm eagerly waiting to read, is on the politics of the evolution-creationism conflict.

And so it's been interesting to see students transform coursework into results that extend well beyond the classroom. Many of your Bowdoin courses will engage you with a larger community, and I encourage you to make the most of these opportunities.

My stories thus far have presented the adventures of chemistry majors. But I've also had memorable interactions with students outside my department, and I'd like to tell you something about Kimm Groshong to make my point.

I met Kimm as a first-year advisee. In her second year, she proposed to spend a summer doing chemistry research not for the usual reason of wanting to go to graduate or medical school but for the sole purpose of becoming a better science writer. We worked together for a summer and our paths diverged somewhat as she began to pursue an interdisciplinary major. Kimm wrote her senior thesis, advised by a member of the history department, on the public's response to Rachel Carson's landmark book, Silent Spring. Many of you will recognize this work, which called attention to the imprudent use of pesticides such as DDT. Its publication is thought to be one of the starting points of the modern environmental movement. The state of Maine, I've come to find out, was a summer home to Rachel Carson and inspired much of her writing.

For her thesis, Kimm visited Yale University and was able to study, for herself, Carson's correspondence and other primary source materials and put together an excellent account of the polarized response which greeted this work and continues to this day. I make it a point to review her thesis each year as I prepare my own organic chemistry lectures on the history and legacy of DDT.

One of Kimm's first jobs out of college was as a science writer for the Pasadena Star-News. Caltech was on her beat, and I had to smile a few years later when our paths intersected again. The year was 2005, and I was back in the Grubbs group for a second sabbatical. In the fall it was announced that Professor Grubbs was a recipient of the Nobel Prize in Chemistry — awarded in recognition of his discovery of that magical catalyst mentioned earlier. As it turns out, one of the other chemistry Laureates was Professor Schrock of MIT, with whom our own Professor Ron Christensen has collaborated over the years.

Professor Grubbs was in New Zealand when he received word of winning the Nobel, so members of the group fielded questions at a press conference held at Caltech later that day. The group told me about a certain reporter, someone who was head and shoulders above the others — a Star-News reporter who "really knew her chemistry and was asking all the right questions — it was as if she had spent time working in an organic lab." It was Kimm, of course, and so for me it was an extra-special week.

I have many fond recollections of that week and of that year. Seeing Kimm involved in educating the local community as to this turn of events, well, that meant a great deal to me. Knowing that that my group had made collaborative contributions to the science being honored, however incremental those contributions were, was a wonderful feeling. But there was so much more to it than simply the chemistry in the flasks: Hearing a Nobel laureate reflect on the transformative effect of his own undergraduate experience; of the importance of family; of enjoying the outdoors and maintaining a balance between work and play; and the joy of working with bright and motivated people in a collegial and fun setting.

Lab space is always at a premium at places like Caltech and for the first part of my stay I shared a bench with Alshakim Nelson, a former student of mine. Our roles were now reversed; it was Al who made me feel settled and situated. It's hard to believe that our own relationship began in the organic teaching lab during Al's second year of college, when he asked about the possibility of conducting research in my lab.

That was nearly three years ago and Al is now a research scientist at IBM in San Jose. Working just down the hall from, ironically enough, Chuck Wade. Every so often my phone will ring and Al is on the line. This past July he called to check in and see how the move was going. He also wanted to tell me that he enjoyed working with a summer intern, a student from my organic chemistry class. I later received an email from the student, Ben Levy, who told me of Al's gifts as a mentor, saying what made him special was Al's "small college professor's approach" to guiding students.

Ben also wrote: "Not until now did I appreciate the extent of our community, something, I think, you often alluded to."

And it is just that, the transformative power of communities such as the one we've entered, that's what I've come to value most. I've told you these stories to convey the great optimism and inspiration I feel as we begin a new life at Bowdoin. Whatever path you take during your time here and beyond, I hope you fuel your adventures with enthusiasm, friendship, cooperation and fun. And be sure to take a few of us along for the ride — we'll all be better for it.

Welcome to Bowdoin.


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