Wayne State chemist wins national award for new ways to make nature's molecules

August 20, 2001

Chemist John Montgomery of Royal Oak, Mich., will be honored August 28 by the world's largest scientific society for streamlining the laboratory steps to make complicated molecules, either previously unknown or found in nature. He will receive the 2001 Arthur C. Cope Scholar Award from the American Chemical Society at its national meeting in Chicago.

"What I do is take starting materials that are cheap and widely available, and think about how to stitch them together," said Montgomery, an associate professor of chemistry at Wayne State University in Detroit.

Conventional chemistry tends to make one new chemical bond per step in a reaction sequence. Montgomery aims instead to make many bonds at once, jumping from building blocks to complex molecules in a single efficient step. "So we bring together lots of starting materials, and the trick is to control what reacts with what and where and when," he said.

Key to his designs are catalysts, the highly skilled construction workers of chemistry. Montgomery's team bases its catalysts on reactive nickel and has devised new ways to use them. "They act like a zipper, making lots of connection points all at one time," he explained. "Applications can be developing cheaper routes to pharmaceuticals or providing access to molecules too difficult to make with conventional chemistry."

For example, Montgomery has discovered how to synthesize two compounds in particular. Both are research tools normally found in only trace quantities in nature. One, called pumiliotoxin, is secreted by poisonous frogs and is often used to study heart muscle contractions. The other can mimic neurodegenerative disorders such as Huntington's disease.

The organic chemist said he always liked science while growing up. But a research project during his senior year in college showed him chemical studies were what he wanted to do, he added.

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Montgomery received his undergraduate degree from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, in 1987 and his Ph.D. from Colorado State University in 1991. He is a member of the ACS divisions of organic and medicinal chemistry.

The ACS Board of Directors established the Arthur C. Cope Scholar Award in 1984 to recognize excellence in organic chemistry. Under the prominent MIT chemist's will, each of 10 such awards consists of a $5,000 prize and $40,000 research grant.

American Chemical Society

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