Dr. Erik Sorensen on Chemistry

Uploaded by NIGMS on 10.09.2010

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Machalek: I'm Alisa Machalek, science writer

Machalek: at the National Institute of General Medical Sciences

Machalek: and I'm here with professor Erik Sorensen of Princeton University.

Machalek: He's a chemist,

Machalek: who builds or synthesizes molecules that are found in nature.

Machalek: This field is called synthetic organic chemistry of natural products.

Machalek: Dr. Sorensen, can you tell us what is important

Machalek: about the field of synthetic organic chemistry?

Sorensen:So a goal for the field is to invent new chemical reactions

Sorensen: that allow us to make large amounts of things that are really important.

Sorensen: Molecules like Taxol, for example.

Sorensen: They will often be scarce natural products,

Sorensen: so they are not very available from their native habitat.

Sorensen: And we are also interested in molecules

Sorensen: where there is a gap in our knowledge about the properties of these molecules.

Sorensen: Therefore there would be an incentive to make more of a certain type of molecule

Sorensen: so that you might learn more about its properties.

Sorensen:We have the ability to create not only the molecule that nature has already made,

Sorensen: but we can create new molecules, molecules that never existed before.

Sorensen: This is one of the things that make chemistry unique within the sciences.

Machalek: And what advice would you give for a student who is considering a career in chemistry?

Sorensen: If I were a young person thinking that I would want to do chemistry as a profession,

Sorensen: I would try to find a good laboratory experience at as early stage as possible.

Sorensen: That would be the advice I would give.

Sorensen: It's a fantastically creative activity.

Sorensen: And I think if you're a young person

Sorensen: and you get exposed to the creative side of chemistry, you'll get hooked.

Sorensen: It took me awhile to get hooked;

Sorensen: I didn't take chemistry seriously until I was in college.

Sorensen: But once I did that, there was no going back.

Sorensen: I thought I was going medical school,

Sorensen: but then I learned a little bit more about organic chemistry

Sorensen: and I mixed chemicals and got a few reactions that actually worked.

Sorensen: That was it for me. That was the hook.

Machalek: Can you tell us some of the challenges or goals in your field?

Sorensen: I would say we're still in that phase

Sorensen: where we're good at making small amounts of complicated things,

Sorensen: not so good at making large amounts of complicated things.

Sorensen: That's a problem for the future.

Sorensen: There is also an opportunity to develop new ways to do chemistry through catalysis,

Sorensen: so using resources intelligently, using resources that don't,

Sorensen: using molecules that don't damage the environment,

Sorensen: developing new catalysts that allow sophisticated chemistry

Sorensen: to happen under benign, gentle conditions.

Machalek: Dr. Sorensen, what are some of the most surprising

Machalek: or exciting things that have occurred in your career?

Sorensen: So I would say nearly on a daily basis,

Sorensen: we're making surprising discoveries about

Sorensen: how molecules behave and how they interact with each other.

Sorensen: In the recent past, we have become rather interested

Sorensen: in trying to bring what we do to bear on neglected diseases like malaria.

Sorensen: We are actively pursuing laboratory synthesis of molecules

Sorensen: that are known to have a high level of effectiveness

Sorensen: in the treatment of malaria and also tuberculosis.

Sorensen: Of course you can plan research but not the results.

Sorensen: Work in this kind of field can be slow and one has to have a lot of patience.

Sorensen: And my graduate students and my post-doctoral coworkers,

Sorensen: they are well aware that it can take awhile to figure out

Sorensen: how to get molecules to dance to your tune.

Machalek: Dr. Sorensen, thank you for your time today

Sorensen: and best wishes in your research on chemical synthesis.