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Holding Court: Peter A. Jacobi

Photo of Professor Jacobi

In this week's edition, we speak with Peter A. Jacobi, who is not only a Professor of Chemistry, but also the author of the new book Introductory Heterocyclic Chemistry, which explains ring formation present in a majority of natural products in a approachable way.

What is your book about?

A thumbnail description: Introductory Heterocyclic Chemistry is a story of sorts, written in conversational style about one of the most important fields in organic chemistry.

Where did you get your ideas for this book?

First a definition or two for non-chemist readers. Organic chemistry is the chemistry of carbon compounds, which frequently can exist as ring structures. If one of the atoms in such rings is replaced with any other atom than carbon, that compound is a heterocycle. Nature has chosen these ring systems as a foundation for many of her life processes (i.e. DNA, RNA, certain amino acids, etc.), and they also form the backbone of most of the small molecule drugs in use today. This book attempts to answer why. The author has been teaching this subject for nearly 45 years, and the genesis for the book came directly from class notes.

What does research look like for you? What element of research could you not live without?

I am a synthetic organic chemist by training, which means that I (and my students) have a love for the laboratory. A message that I try to get across to beginning students is that synthesizing a complex molecule, in three dimensions, has much in common with the work carried out by an architect. That is, you have certain tools to work with, and your task is to reach your objective in the most efficient, and hopefully most creative fashion possible. Any advanced practitioner in the field has a certain style, which is easily recognized by other members of the club. Of course, there is creativity in all sciences, which is sometimes hard to appreciate if you are not in the field. A particular joy in synthesis is being able to reduce abstract ideas on paper into reality in the laboratory.

What do you think the library of the future will look like?

Hopefully like the Tower Room in Baker.

What advice would you give to an aspiring scholar or writer?

Love your subject.

And finally, what do you read for fun?

I have always enjoyed reading biographies of important figures from the past. Most recently these have included excellent works on Grant, Washington and Hamilton (by Ron Chernow). I am also a huge fan of anything written by David McCullough and Stephen Ambrose.

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