S. Campbell Proehl: Your lab focuses on asymmetric synthesis and palladium-catalyzed coupling reactions. Could you put this into layman’s terms for the general MIT population?
Gregory C. Fu: What we’re interested in doing is developing new reactions for use in synthetic organic chemistry or organic synthesis, more broadly. So people want to be able to transform molecules of type A into molecules of type B. Oftentimes, there aren’t good methods to do that, so we’re trying to develop new reactions that will allow us to achieve new transformations — This would be most useful in the pharmaceutical industry. But the fact of the matter is that what we’ve done is also applied in materials science and biology, in order to make new compounds.
TT: I read that you were born in Galion, Ohio in 1963, which according to Wikipedia, had a population of 11,341 at the 2000 census, and was a stop on the Erie Railroad. Later on you moved to Virginia. Do you consider yourself a Midwesterner or a Virginian?
GCF: I consider myself a Midwesterner. I lived in Ohio and Missouri until I was fourteen. I think those were the formative years. I went to high school right outside D.C. in suburban Virginia, but I consider myself to have grown up as a Midwesterner.
TT: What meaning does that have for you?
GCF: I’m actually happy that I did so. Having lived for the last thirty-some years on the East and West Coast, I understand and appreciate many East and West Coast perspectives. I understand that the coasts think the Midwest is an inconvenient thing you have to fly over to get from one side to the other, but I think it’s a great place to grow up. People are friendly, and the pace of life on average, at least where I lived, is a little bit slower, so in terms of a place to grow up, I think I sort of had the perfect experience. I think growing up in the Midwest is great, but at this stage, I actually prefer to live in Boston.
TT: And what did you do as a child? Were you a kid who did science experiments in your basement, or did you do normal kid things?
GCF: No, I usually just liked to go hiking; there were fields and such nearby. There was not too much science. I didn’t really fall in love with Chemistry until my junior year in high school.
TT: Did your parents push you to go into science?
GCF: I would say they pushed me to go away from science. They viewed science as a little bit more of a speculative job situation. They wanted me to be an engineer. They felt that being an engineer would be a safe choice for my career prospects.
TT: Do you have any siblings?
GCF: I have one brother. He’s a professor. He’s an applied mathematician, but he’s a professor at the business school at the University of Maryland. He was also an MIT undergraduate.
TT: How far apart were you?
GCF: He was one year ahead of me. But he stayed an extra year. He ended up double majoring and getting a master’s [degree]. We graduated the same year. He got three degrees. I got one degree.
TT: What was MIT like back in 1985? Were there fewer women?
GCF: The number of women was significantly lower at that point. But I would say qualitatively it wasn’t that different other than that. In terms of the growth of campus, [the Kendall area] and the Whitehead went up when I was an undergraduate. But in terms of the west side of campus, it’s pretty much the same. I get the sense that undergraduate life is not that different.
TT: Where did you live?
GCF: I lived in MacGregor.
TT: Where did you guys eat back then? Was there a dining hall?
GCF: There was mandatory in-commons for people who lived in certain dorms, and so in MacGregor there was what they called a point plan. You had to use a certain number of points per semester, which amounted to a little more than half of one’s meals, or you lost it. So you had some set fee that would pay for a significant fraction of your meals. People weren’t highly enthusiastic about the quality of the dining options back then. I don’t know how things have changed.
TT: There is a movement against the fascist principles of dining halls.
GCF: The feeling then was that they were good in terms of promoting community and so on. But it would have been better if the quality of the food had been more enticing.
TT: Being twenty years out from MIT — I hope that’s not a scary figure — do you have any advice for students here now?
GCF: I don’t know if anything that I’ve learned would be useful now. Like I said, I don’t think the place has changed that much. One of the things I like about MIT is that people who come here don’t expect a free ride. There are some of the elite schools where the students have the attitude that the hard part is getting in and they expect to sort of coast for four years. One of the things I like about MIT undergraduates is that they come here expecting it to be tough and ready to work hard. Hopefully to play hard too, but definitely to work hard. It’s not an entitlement attitude. I think that’s good.
TT: When you look back, do you remember working really hard? Or has that faded now?
GCF: I remember working very hard. At that point (it seems less prevalent now), they had IHTFP t-shirts and so on, because it was a very demanding place and people often, at least at the point they were living through it, had mixed emotions. Most of us, when we look back, remember all of the good things, but when we were here, it was pretty intense and there were some people who weren’t always happy. But when you talk to people now, they look back on that as a great learning experience and they think all the hard work was worth it.
TT: Do you think it made you who you are?
GCF: My guess is most people came in that way. It’s a self-selective group of people who decide to come here and MIT certainly happens during the formative years. But I don’t think it completely changes people. MIT attracts people who are predisposed in certain ways.
TT: What kind of extracurriculars did you do? Were you mostly research-focused?
GCF: The thing that I loved the most was UROP. That was for me the most enjoyable thing. But I do like the fact that MIT is in a city. To me that made a big difference, that if you were tired of the academic scene, it was easy to escape, so to speak. I also did IMs. I played ping-pong, I did IM hockey, even though I hadn’t skated before I came to MIT, I did bowling. There was actually a bowling alley in the basement of the student center. They also had pool, basketball, football. I think I played in one or two of those games, but I didn’t pay football regularly. Table tennis was probably my favorite.
TT: You did your undergraduate research under Barry Sharpless, who won the 2001 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for his work with stereoselective oxidation reactions. Later on, you were a postdoc under Robert Grubbs, who shared the 2005 prize with MIT’s Richard Schrock. What does it feel like when your boss wins the Nobel Prize?
GCF: That’s actually very interesting. It’s kind of cool.
TT: How did you find out? Did you wake up and see it in the newspaper?
GCF: In 2001, I saw it on the web, actually. I knew which day it was going to be so it was announced and I just happened to check the Nobel website and it popped up. Barry told me afterwards that I was the second person to shoot him an e-mail congratulating him.
TT: Do you have a hand in the work for either of the prizes?
GCF: With Sharpless, I played zero role. But in the case of Grubbs, I actually did play a role in terms of what I did as a postdoc.
TT: That has to feel really great.
GCF: It’s interesting though, because I always say that that was the high point of my scientific career, to be participating in something for which at least part of the work was recognized for the Nobel Prize, because most people go through their entire career and at places like MIT, they obviously have a significant contribution, but they’re not doing work that’s directly associated with the Nobel Prize. So again, not to say that my work was the work that went into the Nobel Prize, but it was part of the program.
TT: I think it’s fair to give yourself credit. What do you do in your spare time?
GCF: That’s a good question. Not a whole lot right now. I’ll occasionally go see a Red Sox game. I probably have a 38-year streak of seeing at least one Red Sox game — I think since my freshman year here. When I was a postdoc at Caltech, I used to go to see the Angels play the Red Sox. In terms of sports, they’re probably my favorite team.
TT: Can I ask you how many hours a week you spend in the office? Or checking in on the lab?
GCF: Not that much time around the lab anymore. I give the students a fair amount of latitude to do what they want. But in terms of how many hours I spend in the office, I don’t know. Seventy? Eighty? It’s hard to say.
TT: That’s dedication. That’s serious dedication.
GCF: Well, it’s one of those things. Many people aren’t so fortunate. If you like what you do, it’s not work. So, coming in on weekends isn’t a chore if you really, really love what you do. I know a lot of people who sort of work just to pay the bills and to me that would be a frustrating life. I think I’m extraordinarily lucky because work is fun for me. It’s not a chore. So working more than eight hours a day or working on weekends isn’t a bad thing. It’s not something I dread.
TT: That’s an incredible luxury, to love what you do that much.
TT: And last, what’s your favorite molecule?
GCF: That’s an interesting question. I don’t know, maybe water. It’s an interesting molecule because of its hydrogen bonding properties. And it’s such a simple molecule, too, so it’s relatively unique.
TT: That’s a far simpler answer than I would have expected.
GCF: There are some very interesting large biomolecules, but water is a basic molecule and yet so important in terms of our everyday existence.
TT: Mine is isoamyl acetate.