03/26/2012 07:00:00

American Chemical Society Names Caltech Chemist Sarah Reisman a Rising Star

Sarah E. Reisman, an assistant professor of chemistry at Caltech, will receive the WCC Rising Star Award today, making her one of 10 midcareer women chemists to be honored with the award in its inaugural year. The distinction, bestowed by the Women Chemists Committee (WCC) of the American Chemical Society (ACS), will be presented at the society's 243rd national meeting in San Diego and is intended to help promote the retention of women in science.

"We have done a better job in encouraging women into the STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) fields with higher numbers achieving both Bachelors and Doctoral degrees," said Nancy Jackson, immediate past president of the ACS, in a statement. "However, the actual number of women in mid-career positions continues to decline. I am pleased to see the WCC address this important issue, and the WCC Rising Star Award is a perfect opportunity to highlight successful women chemists to promote retention in the chemical enterprise."

Reisman was cited by the WCC "for excellence in the development of catalytic asymmetric methodologies for natural product synthesis." Her group at Caltech works to develop new ways to synthesize in the laboratory chemical compounds that are produced naturally by plants, bacteria, or fungi.

Reisman explains that her group chooses to work on natural products for two reasons: From a biology standpoint, organisms often make these compounds as mechanisms of chemical warfare—bacteria produce antibiotics to kill other bacteria, for instance. This can make the chemicals desirable for pharmaceutical development. From a chemistry standpoint, she says, "we usually select really complicated, challenging molecules because they require us to develop new chemistry if we want to prepare them in any sort of straightforward fashion."

The Reisman group has recently focused on synthesizing a class of compounds called ETPs, short for the chemical functional group epidithiodiketopiperazine that these compounds contain. ETPs are extremely reactive and participate in a lot of interesting biology, but this reactivity also makes them difficult to work with. Reisman and her colleagues recently published a paper in the Journal of the American Chemical Society describing the synthesis of an ETP called acetylaranotin, which was isolated in the 1960s but had never been prepared synthetically. "It's exciting because it provides the first synthetic access to a particular class of ETP compounds," Reisman says. "We know that they have some promising properties in terms of cancer therapeutics, but they haven't been studied in any detail."

Reisman was born and raised in Bar Harbor, Maine. She earned her BA at Connecticut College in 2001 and her PhD at Yale University in 2006. She was a postdoctoral fellow at Harvard University and joined the faculty at Caltech in 2008.

When she thinks back on her education, she says she fell in love with synthetic organic chemistry when she took her first organic chemistry class as a premed requirement. She quickly realized that she no longer wanted to go to medical school, but instead she wanted to do organic chemistry research.

"What I love about organic chemistry is that it takes the best aspects of scientific research and adds a kind of creative discipline," Reisman says. "When you go in the lab and when you're designing experiments, that's grounded in our scientific method, but before you get into the lab, when you're thinking about how you want to make a given molecule, that's a very creative endeavor, and I really like that aspect. In some ways, it's very much like solving a logic puzzle."

For a complete list of the winners of the inaugural Rising Star Award, click here

Written by Kimm Fesenmaier