Professor Eric Anslyn
Winner: 2020 Centenary Prize
University of Texas at Austin
For exploiting supramolecular interactions and dynamic covalent bonding to generate assays of practical utility, and for communicating the excitement of chemistry to students of all ages.
Celebrate Professor Eric Anslyn
The discipline of physical organic chemistry delves into the reasons that organic compounds undergo chemical reactions, the rules for nature’s reactions, and how society can use these lessons for the improvement of humankind. Professor Anslyn uses physical organic chemistry to create sensors for a variety of practical applications, such as the detection of toxic nerve agents, improving reactions involved in drug discovery and to mimic the senses of taste and smell for the analysis of beverages as well as biological fluids for medical diagnostic purposes.
Professor Anslyn’s group took insights from chemical reactivity to create a toolkit of reactions that can store sequence information, akin to nucleic acids. The same toolkit allows for the generation of plastics that undergo triggered responses to stimuli for changing their properties, and for triggered degradation into small non-toxic molecules.
In addition, the group has helped create the first single molecule protein sequencing routine for rapid, parallel and ultra-sensitive detection of every protein in a cell, helping future medical diagnostics and biochemical analysis.Read full biography
Professor Eric V. Anslyn received his BS in chemistry from the California State University Northridge in 1982, and performed his thesis studies under the direction of Dr Robert Grubbs at the California Institute of Technology in the area of orgaometallic chemistry, receiving a PhD in 1987. He was then an NSF post-doctoral fellow at Columbia University, working with the late Ronald Breslow in the area of biomimetric chemistry. From there, he started as an assistant professor of chemistry at the University of Texas, Austin, in 1989. He rose through the ranks to hold the Welch Regents Chair of Chemistry, and is a University Distinguished Teaching Professor as well as a Howard Hughes Medical Institute Professor. He has received numerous awards, including the Izatt Christiansen Award for Macrocyclic and Supramolecular Chemistry, the Czarnik Award for Molecular Sensing, the Edward Lette Award, the Cope Scholar Award, and the James Flack Norris Award in Physical Organic Chemistry, the latter three being from the American Chemical Society.
Professor Anslyn’s research is broadly in the areas of physical organic chemistry and supramolecular chemistry with a specialization on molecular sensing, mechanistic organic chemistry studies, and most recently soft-materials and sequence defined polymers. He is a co-author of the graduate level textbook entitled “Modern Physical Organic Chemistry”.
How did you first become interested in chemistry?
I first took chemistry as part of the required curriculum for the premedical sciences. Immediately, I fell in love with the ideas of orbitals, electrons and quantum mechanics. Then, when taking organic chemistry, it was a natural fit for my experiences and talents. As a child I built a lot of car/airplane models and worked on antique cars (as I still do). Organic chemistry is the construction of molecules to perform functions and tasks, analogous to building models and working on automobiles, and thus chemistry to me is simply an extension of my childhood and my past/current hobbies.
What motivates you?
My biggest motivator is watching my students, both graduate and undergraduate, transition to successful independent careers in the basic and medical sciences, both in academia and industry.
What has been a highlight for you?
The highlights derive from the “eureka moments”, when the answer to a long-standing question becomes clear, or when one of the molecules we have designed and synthesized performs the function or task that we envisioned.
What advice would you give to a young person considering an academic career in chemistry?
The advice that I give continually is to never give up on your ideas, never stop working, and never give in to the peer-review system. There are many hurdles in academia: tenure, manuscript reviews, grant reviews, and teaching evaluations. But the career is entirely worth it – you are your own boss! The freedom to work on your own ideas, to interact with your students/post-docs as a team, and to set your own hours and work-agenda are all very empowering and fulfilling. The fact that novel scientific ideas often do not pan-out, and that the peer review system will at times give you negative feedback, are all part of a process that creates top-notch science and therefore should be embraced with gusto and faced as a challenge.