BridgeForward Essay

Michael Foody

Organometallic synthesis is impossible to learn without the guided care of a mentor. It is the perseverant relationship between mentor and protégé that has sustained hundreds of years of organometallic progress. I learned organometallic synthesis from my advisor, Adam Hock, and upon reflection on my deeper academic legacy, I notice certain motifs and perspectives I have unknowingly adopted. Notably, a perspective on scientific progress that emphasizes applications – that while many compounds may be intellectually interesting, a scientist should not neglect the basic usefulness of organometallics. I also appreciate personal similarities in my academic lineage. From my great-grand-advisor John Osborn, to my grand-advisor Richard ‘Dick’ Schrock, to my advisor Adam Hock, and in myself there is a pervasive optimism and enthusiasm for this work we share.

John A. Osborn was born in Kent, Britain in the year before the Nazi siege of Britain, 1939. His graduate work was with Geoffrey Wilkinson, where he was among the first chemists to synthesize chlor(tris-triphenylphosphine)rhodium(I), otherwise known as Wilkinson’s catalyst. Osborn spent his career synthesizing compounds for catalytic transformations of olefins. His compound tris-(triphenylphosphine)rhodium carbonyl hydride is still used industrially today for hydroformylation reactions. Although he passed away in 2000 from brain cancer, pictures of him can be found on-line where throughout his life he never seemed to have lost his bright assertive eyes, framed by a tangle of disheveled hair and a thick gray beard.

Dick Schrock met his advisor in 1967 during Osborn’s first year as a faculty member and Dick’s first year as a student. Dick would write a memorial for his advisor 33 year later where he described that meeting: “John told me about transition metals, about catalysis, about the excitement of creating new compounds, and about creating them for a purpose.” Dick Schrock grew up in rural Indiana and was six years younger than his advisor. His enthusiasm for chemistry was apparent from his earliest days, going so far as to convert a household storage area into a chemistry lab at the age of 13. His enthusiasm was surely well received by his advisor. Later at DuPont, he discovered the first alkylidene-based compounds for high oxidation state metals. After moving to MIT, he would use the chemistry of metal alkylidenes to perform olefin metathesis reactions. This work would be awarded the 2005 Nobel Prize in Chemistry.

Adam was a second year student in the Schrock Group during the Nobel excitement. Adam in many ways is like Dick. From rural Pennsylvania, Adam developed his interest in synthetic chemistry at a very young age. Both he and his advisor have a good-natured charm that conceals a strong competitive spirit. Adam still speaks fondly of his relationship with Dick and the years he spent in the Schrock Group. Like Dick, I began my graduate work with a young assistant professor, and over the years Adam has taken his expertise in organometallic synthesis and applied it to atomic layer deposition (ALD). Adam has made a point of teaching his students to be synthetic chemists first and applying synthetic principles to other fields. Indeed, my thesis aspires to analyze ALD precursors and reaction chemistry from the perspective of an organometallic synthetic chemist. I could not have written my thesis without the pioneering work into organometallics done by John Osborn in the 1960’s. Without the optimistic sense of progress that was instilled into Dick, my own development as a synthetic chemist would not be possible. This is the essence of science: we use the fundamental relationship between student and teacher to pass the fruits of scientific inquiry to the next generation. And in this we make progress.