Skip to Navigation
University of Pittsburgh
Print This Page Print this pages

October 26, 2006

Chemistry prof Cohen marks 50 years at Pitt

When Theodore Cohen arrived in Pitt’s chemistry department 50 years ago, “It really was pretty miserable,” he recalls. Fresh from postgraduate work in Glasgow under Derek Barton (later a Nobel laureate), he’d been hired long-distance, without even an interview, to join Pitt’s organic chemistry faculty.

When he walked into his assigned space in Eberly Hall (then known as Alumni Hall) he found a big, dirty lab with an old desk in the corner and not even a blotter on the desk. A $1,000 budget to equip his lab and office had to cover everything from pens and paper clips on up. “I had to start from the beginning,” he said.

Now, professor emeritus Cohen’s office and lab in the Chevron Science Center are considerably better equipped, as is the entire chemistry department, which has grown in size and reputation in the past half-century.

“Everything is entirely different,” he said, citing excellent front office support as well as mechanical, glass and spectroscopy shops to aid faculty in their work. “What we have is sensational.”

Looking back on 50 years at Pitt, Cohen says, “It worked out beautifully. I couldn’t have been in a place more rewarding.”

To mark the milestone, Cohen, 77, was honored with a reception following a lecture he presented on his work at Pitt.

During opening remarks at the talk, colleague Toby Chapman noted of Cohen, “With his dedication to science, with his dedication to the department and with his work ethic, we’re celebrating the equivalent of about 75 years of achievement.”

Among his lab’s many discoveries was a synthetic method for making phenols (components in the production of pharmaceuticals and synthetic resins) that now is the standard in many chemistry textbooks. “This is probably my main legacy in chemistry,” he said.

A 1992 recipient of the Chancellor’s Award for Distinguished Research, Cohen retired from the University in 1999 and was feted with a symposium in his honor. Since that time, he has continued working in his lab with both undergrad and graduate researchers.

Cohen is the first to admit that he often didn’t get off to a quick start in his endeavors, but “I always ended up well.”

He left high school with no strong inclinations as to a career path. “I never was one of those geeks who really loved science,” he said. But he enjoyed chemistry, especially in figuring out the mechanisms of organic reactions and understanding how nature works.

He considered medical school, but decided instead to pursue chemistry. Looking back, he said he made the right choice. “Research I think is much more exciting than being a physician,” he said. “Research is always new.”

In 50 years in the field, Cohen has seen computers and new technology revolutionize the way chemists work, replacing the tedious method of drawing out chemical structures on boards with a program that speeds the process. “The computer has revised the way we write papers, read papers and search literature in ways we could never before. It’s marvelous,” he said. “Technology has made a huge difference.”

Cohen said he has learned that “when something happens, you can never tell if it’s good or bad,” labeling several low points on his career path as blessings in disguise.

As a student, he’d applied for a Fulbright scholarship to work with Barton in London, only to discover that Barton had moved to Glasgow.

He got the scholarship but not the London life he’d anticipated. “It was dismal and dirty,” he recalled. The blessing: “In Glasgow there was nothing to do outside my work,” he quipped. “It worked out very well.” His work with Barton on biosynthesis added to his credibility and played a role in his being hired sight unseen at Pitt.

Before heading to Pittsburgh, the Massachusetts native researched the city in the Encyclopedia Britannica. “It sounded like Glasgow,” he said. His fears of a life spent in sooty gray towns turned out to be unfounded. “Pittsburgh is one of the greatest places to live that you can find, in many ways,” he said.

He even found a silver lining in appendicitis. Three days in the hospital in his early days at Pitt freed him to read about nuclear magnetic resonance. “It gave me the opportunity to become the foremost expert at the University of Pittsburgh in NMR” at the time, he said. New in the 1950s, NMR, the technology on which MRIs are based, has become a standard way organic chemists identify a compound’s molecular structure.

Most researchers wouldn’t call losing funding a “lucky thing,” but Cohen found it to be so. Having his National Science Foundation support pulled in the early 1970s after nearly two decades of renewals was another blessing in disguise. In declining to renew funding for his mechanistically-oriented work, the NSF program manager said he should move on to other areas, Cohen said.

“This liberated me,” he said. “I had a number of ideas, new things I wanted to do.” The forced change in direction led him to focus on synthetic chemistry, which led to new funding from both NSF and the National Institutes of Health and whole new areas of discovery. Among his more recent work has been in the synthesis of pheromones.

Cohen said his regrets lie in his habit of moving on too quickly to new ideas. “I love to discover new things,” he said, lamenting that he set aside some discoveries without fully developing them. “I’ve moved into other things too fast,” he admitted.

He’s begun correcting that by publishing in collaboration with his former post-doc Xiaoming Zhao, now of the Shanghai Institute of Organic Chemistry. That partnership allows Cohen to wrestle with the ideas while others halfway around the world contribute the lab work.

Still in process at Pitt is his work with undergraduate Justin Chalker to develop a new method of synthesizing kainic acid. The substance, derived from seaweed, is important to medical research because it is able to induce symptoms of neurological disorders. If symptoms of seizures, strokes or Alzheimer’s can be induced, researchers can then develop cures.

Although other syntheses exist, Cohen believes his lab’s method will be more efficient and could cut the cost (about $10,000 a gram) by a factor of 10.

Chalker, whom Cohen calls “extraordinary” among his team members, is pursuing a master’s degree in England on a Rhodes scholarship, and is among the many students Cohen considers instrumental to his work.

On the bookshelves lining Cohen’s office are the theses of his 45 PhD advisees and scattered photos of former students. “I’ve been helped by so many people,” he said, adding that his student researchers “have been great. They’ve helped enormously intellectually as well as with the lab work.”

Of the nearly two dozen graduate researchers and more than three dozen post-docs he’s mentored, some have followed him into academia, while others have chosen careers in industry. “That’s been the satisfying legacy,” he said.

-—Kimberly K. Barlow

Filed under: Feature,Volume 39 Issue 5

Leave a Reply