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Dr. Robert Grubbs shares his Nobel award-winning research at lecture

Published April 10, 2019

Science and commerce can intersect in many places – medicine, agriculture and the emerging green industry – and that’s why researchers’ dedication to laboratory research needs to be joined with insights from people who are working to solve the world’s problems.

That’s one of the lessons Nobel laureate Robert H. Grubbs delivered to an audience of students and faculty Tuesday during the campus’ 40th Nobel Laureate Lecture. Grubbs, who shared the 2005 chemistry prize, spoke on his own research as well as his thoughts on how scientific breakthroughs can lead to new products and commercial processes.

Among his insights:

  • Would-be scientists need to experience research at an early age, so they can make the critical finding of whether they actually want to become researchers.
  • Those who do become scientists and want to commercialize their discoveries “should do all this stuff for fun,” since chemistry isn’t a field for get-rich-quick plays.
  •  Researchers must work closely with other experts, such as medical practitioners, who can ask the right questions to convert pure science into applied science.

“I have a lot of young colleagues, and a lot of older colleagues, who say ‘I’m going to solve this medical problem, blah, blah, blah, blah.’ I say, ‘Who are you working with?’ And if they can’t name the person that they’re working with every day, I say, ‘You’re not going to solve the problem,’” Grubbs said during his speech.

“You’re going to solve another problem, because you don’t know what these guys do every day. You need somebody who’s in the clinic every day, doing all kinds of stuff,” he continued.

Grubbs, who grew up in rural Kentucky and is now the Victor and Elizabeth Atkins Professor of Chemistry at Caltech, shared the 2005 chemistry prize with two other researchers in recognition of their studies of metathesis, a process in organic chemistry.

“Organic substances - a multitude of chemical compounds that contain the element carbon - are the basis of all life. Metathesis is an important type of chemical reaction in assembling or synthesizing organic substances,” reads the official Nobel Media summary of his work.

Grubbs studies a phenomenon called olefin metathesis, a process that involves two carbon-carbon double bonds, known as olefins, which come together and exchange with one another to form a set of two new carbon-carbon double bonds.

Grubbs explained Tuesday how metal catalysts can promote several reactions with industrial applications, ranging from biofuels production to controlling insect populations (by disrupting the chemical communications between male and female bugs) to developing new materials.

Long Beach State inaugurated the Nobel lecture series in 1976. Donald A. Glaser, who won the physics prize in 1960, was the series’ first speaker. Glaser gave science the bubble chamber, a device that made it possible to take pictures of the paths of charged particles through a liquid, according to Nobel Media.

“The Nobel Laureate Lecturers who come to (here) are invited by students to come and talk to students,” said Curtis Bennett, Richard D. Green Dean of the College of Natural Sciences and Mathematics.

“In their general lecture, they tell the story of where they came from and how they got to the level of a Nobel Laureate. There is an ‘a-ha’ moment of inspiration or passion. That moment is followed by a story of hard work and perseverance to which every student can relate. It is always a source of inspiration to our students to continue to create and innovate.”

Students who study chemistry frequently win acceptance to top universities awarding doctoral degrees in the discipline, according to Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry professor Christopher Brazier. Those institutions include Caltech, UC Berkeley, Stanford, MIT and Harvard.

The College of Natural Sciences & Mathematics Student Council sponsored Grubbs’ lecture. Council vice president Teodora Nedic, an undergraduate student studying organic chemical synthesis, said she appreciated Grubbs’ decision to discuss applied science.

Nedic also said she aspires to complete research with commercial applications, helping people who need medicines.

“I would probably want to delve into something pharmaceutical … making things more affordable for patients. Making things more affordable for businesses,” she said.