"It turns out that nature is much better at making many molecules than we are," said Shair, an organic chemist who at age 34 is a tenured professor at Harvard University. "So if we can understand how nature plugs together simple compounds into very complex molecules, we may be able to make them ourselves in the laboratory."
For Shair, however, it's not just the end that fascinates but the means as well. "Nature really uses a very small number of reactions to make a very wide diversity of molecules," he said. Learning the intricate pathways that lead from starting materials to products helps his research team harness the knowledge to build new molecules, he explained, ones that rival the complexity and diversity found so exquisitely in nature.
"We can then screen (those molecules) in cells for the ability to perturb biological activity," said Shair. "It's a powerful way to study how nature works."
One study technique members of his group use "is almost like a movie," he said. They can attach a natural protein in a cell to a fluorescent "tag" and then "sprinkle in our molecule and ask, 'Did it perturb cellular processes in some way?'"
Of particular interest is protein trafficking, he said -- the process by which the mechanics of a cell transport a protein from one spot to another, from where it was made to where it exerts its action, for example.
Shair said he's been interested in science as far back as he can remember. "I've always been very curious about how the world works," he explained. "When I came across chemistry, I found the shapes of molecules, their geometry, really intrigued me."
The organic chemist received his undergraduate degree from the University of Rochester in 1990 and his Ph.D. from Columbia University in 1995. He is a member of the ACS division of organic chemistry.
The ACS Board of Directors established the Arthur C. Cope Scholar Award in 1984 to recognize and encourage excellence among organic chemists including Young Scholars, those under age 36. Cope himself was a celebrated organic chemist and former chairman of ACS. The award consists of a $5,000 prize as well as an unrestricted research grant of $40,000.