Afterhours with Richard R. Schrock
Nobel Prize winner explains how his chemistry career started with banana-scented esters
Professor Richard R. Schrock somehow manages to do it all. He has won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry, teaches, does research, has a family, a woodworking hobby, and is starting his own company. At the undergraduate level, he’s taught 5.112 (Principles of Chemical Science). Here, he gives his thoughts on what actor he thinks would be able to fit this role in the movie of his life and explains how he got his start in chemistry at eight years old while making banana-scented esters.
The Tech: What was it like growing up in Indiana?
Richard R. Schrock: We weren’t rich, and my dad was struggling. It was a typical Indiana upbringing. I had two older brothers. When I was of age I played sports — baseball, basketball, football. You weren’t one of the guys unless you played sports, but I didn’t like it very much.
TT: You got your start in chemistry when you were eight years old. What kind of experiments were you doing?
RRS: I made esters, nice smelling esters. I got a book back then of experiments. My older brother gave me the chemistry set and also gave me books, and there was “How to Make Ethyl Acetate.” I thought, okay, I can do that. And so I did it, and it smelled good. And then I looked at the next one — amyl acetate, let’s make that one. So this one smells like bananas, that one smells like such and such. It was fun, and I moved on from there.
TT: When you were in college you built your own set of speakers. What was that like to engineer?
RRS: I was interested in the woodworking part of it. My dad was a carpenter, and I still do woodworking, so I said, “I can build speakers,” and went and got the speaker components and built the cabinets. In my house and office there are tables and chairs that I’ve made. This past Christmas, I thought, “What am I going to get?” My wife said, “My earrings are messy and I can’t find things.” So I made her a very beautiful earring holder. Then I made earring holders for both of my daughter-in-laws, too.
TT: What’s been keeping you busy this year?
RRS: Always research. And I’m not teaching this semester, fortunately, otherwise I’d have negative time. I started a company based on some of the recent results we got, and so now I have a company like other people have a company. That’s involved a lot of time, and it’s in Switzerland, so I have to go over to Switzerland, and the lab is in Hungary. The idea arose that we should try to do something with all of this beautiful chemistry that we’ve developed, and so that’s where it started, and then other people joined. This area called olefin metathesis where you make double bonds using two other double bonds and give off an olefin like ethylene is a big deal. There just are no good catalytic ways of making carbon-carbon double bonds. Chemically, they’re very useful and we really have the only catalyst that will make them. We would like to help companies that have a problem and would like to make this, that, or the other thing and say, “OK, we’ll help figure out how you can make it using our catalyst.” It will probably be used mostly for organic molecules, large rings, drugs, polypeptides, fragrances, [and] flavors.
TT: When you won the Nobel Prize, what did you do to celebrate?
RRS: You get the call very early. On the east coast it’s 5:30 in the morning. There was a lot of press and so forth, and there was a press conference at 10 a.m., and I couldn’t celebrate all day because I had to give a talk at 4 p.m. I couldn’t drink wine or anything. But that evening [my colleagues and I] went out to a restaurant, and I kept it to a minimum, but I did have some wine.
The Nobel Prize ceremony is a week-long period in December, and it’s spectacular. It’s really a week-long celebration.
TT: So you’ve been at MIT now for 36 years. How have you seen the Institute change through that time?
RRS: A lot has changed, and a lot hasn’t. The physical plant has changed a lot. Buildings have gone up and Kendall Square is kind of a swishy place now — it wasn’t always that way. In 1969, it was pretty bad over there. The student body has changed a lot. Many more women, minorities, and so on, and that’s great that we’re really in the mainstream in that regard. The old MIT was just the best and the brightest male — hate to say nerds — but … you can still find the authentic nerd somewhere, but I think it has changed quite a bit.
I think it’s also changed in the way that students are involved in many more things. They’re doing plays or singing in chorus and this and that, and they’re really stretched very thin — too thin in some ways — but it’s good for them because the intensity hasn’t changed. Maybe it’s not so intensely oriented towards the hard-core science and engineering. We’ve got other departments that are great.