September 28, 2006

Prof. Ganem Incorporates His Many Interests Into Chemistry

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The Sun sat down with the recent winner of the American Chemical Society Award for Creative Invention, Prof. Bruce Ganem, chemistry, to discuss journalism, entrepreneurship, law and the MCATs.

Sun: Did you know that your picture was on the Cornell web portal for a whole week? What was it like seeing your face every day?

Ganem: Well I didn’t see it there until I started getting e-mails from my class. But I don’t usually go there.

Sun: So is it true that you went to high school with President George W. Bush at Andover?

Ganem: I did go to Andover. George Bush was one year ahead of me at Andover and all students knew each other, but I don’t think we should go through this.

Sun: It’s okay if you talk about him. I doubt he’ll be reading The Cornell Daily Sun anytime soon.

Ganem: [Chuckles.] It was 2000 when Gore and Bush were running. Mr. Gore was my college classmate at Harvard, so I told my class I knew both of these candidates – Al Gore didn’t know me, but George Bush and I vaguely knew each other.

Sun: That’s quite a connection!

Ganem: If you live long enough, someone you know is bound to become famous.

Sun: Now is Andover where you developed your interest in science?

Ganem: I think so. I was interested in science as far as I can remember, but I got pretty interested in chemistry in high school. I had a great high school chemistry teacher, and he encouraged me a lot, and I enjoyed it very much.

Sun: I’ve also heard that you’re the editor of the Tetrahedron Letter.

Ganem: So I’m a scientific journal editor, that’s right. Right now I’m the chairman of the editorial board. So every day I’m reviewing manuscripts that other scientists send in and having them peer reviewed and making decisions about which ones will be published.

Sun: In addition to chemistry, I hear that you’re quite an entrepreneur.

Ganem: Cornell has a very active entrepreneurship program, and I became interested in that fairly late in my Cornell career during the late nineties. When I found out about the program, I thought it might be interesting to teach a course in the chemistry department for young chemists would might be interested in starting a business but wouldn’t otherwise know how.

Sun: That’s quite an unexpected side of you that most students would not have guessed. And this was involved in your work with paclitaxel?

Ganem: We had discovered something in my lab, and it was beginning to be clear that that discovery could be applied to develop a much less expensive synthesis of this drug, paclitaxel. Ordinary yew trees contain lots of compounds closely related to paclitaxel. So we developed a way to take these compounds and treat them all with the reaction we discovered and transform them into one compound that could be rebuilt into paclitaxel.

Sun: You’ve also told your class you were in a trial recently.

Ganem: Well I was an expert witness.

Sun: And a celebrity?

Ganem: [Chuckles.] No, I wasn’t a celebrity; I was an expert witness. It made a big impact on me because I never thought I’d teach a federal district court judge about organic chemistry. And it made it clear to me that being serious about teaching could have ramifications beyond the classroom.

Sun: Do you apply the scientific mindset to daily life outside of your research and work?

Ganem: Well, I think all the students I teach are the best evidence of that. Look at what students have done who take organic chemistry. I’ve had many former students go to med school, but I’ve also had some go off to become writers, business people, go into public policy and politics. I’m still awaiting one day to see one of our students become a U.S. Senator.

Sun: You’ve also been emphasizing on how much of a “control freak” you are.

Ganem: A lot of students like to joke with me about that, but I meant that in a scientific way. Really good chemists are the ones that can make decisions about chemical reactions that will give the desired outcome.

Sun: So I imagine maintaining that control can be stressful.

Ganem: Stressful? Oh, no! This is great.

Sun: So we all know that you’re excellent at organic chemistry. But have you actually taken the MCAT?

Ganem: [Laughs.] No one has ever asked me that! I’ve never take the MCAT. I was interested in being pre-med, but then I decided I loved organic chemistry so much.

Sun: You know, you could take the MCATs just for fun.

Ganem: I never thought about that! I’ll have to consider that.