After receiving Killian Award, Richard Schrock reflects on a life in chemistry
F.G. Keyes Professor Richard Royce Schrock holds many titles, not the least of which is Nobel laureate. An organometallic chemistry pioneer, Schrock received the Nobel for his contributions to the development of the olefin metathesis reaction (now used for the efficient and more environmentally friendly production of important pharmaceuticals, fuels, and other products) on Oct. 5, 2005. That momentous afternoon, a crowd packed into Huntington Hall to witness Schrock deliver his Nobel lecture. “It was an impromptu talk,” Schrock recalls. “No slides, and no preparation.” This year, on Feb. 15, another crowd will congregate in the very same room, this time to watch Schrock give the 2017–2018 Killian Lecture, “Adventures in Organic Chemistry and Catalysis.”
Schrock was named the winner of the 2017–2018 James R. Killian Jr. Faculty Achievement Award this past May. In terms of the honor and excitement that came with receiving the award, “The Killian Prize is equal to [the Nobel],” says Schrock. The Killian Prize was established in the spring of 1971 as a permanent tribute to James R. Killian Jr., former MIT president (1948–1959) and chairman of the Corporation (1959–1971). The award is given in recognition of extraordinary professional achievement by MIT faculty members and aims to communicate their accomplishments to members of the Institute community. The Department of Chemistry is proud to have had several of its faculty members receive this honor since the award’s inception: Stephen J. Lippard, JoAnne Stubbe, George H. Büchi, John S. Waugh, and Alexander Rich were all Killian Lecturers.
Before being named a Killian Lecturer or a Nobel laureate, and even before a type of metal carbene was named in his honor, an 8-year-old Schrock was influenced by an older brother, five years his senior. “My brother Ted was very good in chemistry; he went on to be a surgeon,” says Schrock. “For some reason, I guess because he loved chemistry, he gave me a chemistry set for Christmas, and there was pretty good stuff in it.” Schrock acquired some of his brother’s old high school chemistry books, and went ahead to procure the chemicals required to conduct some of his first experiments — sweet-smelling esters such as ethyl acetate.
A watershed in chemistry
Schrock received his PhD from Harvard University in 1971. Following a fellowship at Cambridge University, he found himself working in the Central Research and Development Department of DuPont. It was there that Schrock experienced a watershed moment in his life.
“There’s a notebook page from when I was at DuPont — dated July 27, 1973,” Schrock recalls. “It was witnessed by someone in my lab, and I signed it on August 7, 1973, about 10 days later. It must have been that day when I went home and told my wife, ‘I think I’ve done something important.’”
Schrock had discovered a double bond compound, which had never been suspected — the reaction had never been observed. The compound was well-behaved and one of a kind. The discovery of this compound ultimately led Schrock to become the first to elucidate the structure and mechanism of so-called black box olefin metathesis catalysts.
The future of chemistry
As for the future — Schrock believes we continue to push back the frontiers.
“Everything is chemistry,” says Schrock. “We can explain so much if we understand the basics and the applications of chemistry. Whether it’s life sciences, different kinds of polymers, electronic conducting materials, organic conducting materials — all the things that are being done now in the chemical industry and beyond, really rely on chemistry.” Schrock believes in the limitless potential of discovery, and that the answers and cures to the currently incurable conundrums exist. It’s up to researchers to have that breakthrough moment, he says.
“Some people say, ‘Oh, everything’s been discovered,’” Schrock muses. “But people said that at the end of the 19th century, before they even knew what an atom was.”