"We try to understand catalysts so we can design and make them better," said Grubbs, who is Atkins professor of chemistry at the California Institute of Technology. Like highly skilled construction workers, catalysts make possible the building of structures -- in this case molecular structures, one after another -- without themselves being incorporated into the assembly.
"If we do understand a catalyst and how it works, we can tinker with it and make it better," he said. The key to designing the better catalyst is knowing how to direct toward a specific part of a molecule.
"That's been our primary aim for the last number of years -- trying to focus a catalyst where we want it even if there are more reactive compounds around it, like even water, for instance," Grubbs said. "That kind of control is critical for making pharmaceuticals."
Grubbs's specialty within the field is catalysts that act on carbon-carbon double bonds, two carbon atoms that share four instead of two electrons between them.
"We're trying to find new ways to put the carbon-carbon double bonds wherever we want. These are useful starting materials to which functional groups can be added later" with the precision the drug industry requires, he explained.
Grubbs said "a phenomenal junior-high teacher" steered him toward chemistry. "I really lucked out," he remembered. "There was a major uranium-refining plant near where I grew up in Kentucky that brought in a lot of scientists. Some of them stayed on to become teachers, like Mrs. Baumgardner."
The organic chemist received his undergraduate degree from the University of Florida in 1963 and a Ph.D. from Columbia University in 1968. He is a member of the ACS divisions of organic, inorganic, organometallic and polymer chemistry.
The ACS Board of Directors established the Arthur C. Cope Award in 1984 to recognize and encourage excellence in organic chemistry in the tradition of Cope, an organic chemist and former chairman of ACS. The award consists of a gold medallion and a $25,000 prize and unrestricted research grant of $150,000.