Momentum Award: Larry Scott

A lot  has changed in the chemistry department since Lawrence Scott first came to Boston College.

The current Louise and Jim Vanderslice and Family professor in chemistry arrived on the Heights in 1993, just after the construction of Merkert Hall, still the only academic building on campus dedicated to a single department.

Until the early ’90s, T. Ross Kelly, currently the Margaret and Thomas Vanderslice professor in chemistry, ran essentially the only research group in organic chemistry, when there were only two or three graduate students in the organic program. In 1990, the department received 24 grants, totaling $2.2 million.

During the early ’90s, the organic faculty began their meteoric rise with the addition of Amir Hoveyda, current department chair and Joseph T. and Patricia Vanderslice Millennium professor of chemistry, professor Marc Snapper, and Scott. Over the next 20 years, the department would grow enormously.

Scott’s career in chemistry began long before BC, however, and his road to Merkert was a long one. It began with his first chemistry set and summers spent exploring the University of Illinois’ chemistry department as a child growing up within 10 blocks of the campus. After taking freshman chemistry at the university during his senior year in high school, his journey continued through his undergraduate years at Princeton-both his father’s and his grandfather’s alma mater, and now his own-where he spent long hours in research labs and discovered a passion for organic chemistry.

Scott’s professional training continued at Harvard, where he obtained a Ph.D. in chemistry in four years under Nobel laureate and legendary organic chemist R.B. Woodward. After, he moved west to work as an assistant professor at the University of California-Los Angeles, where he stayed for five years before moving to his 18-year professorship at the University of Nevada-Reno.

“For me, the career path was always easy and never troublesome,” Scott said on his decision to become an educator. “I always knew pretty far in advance, at the next branch in the road, which branch I was going to take.”

Scott spoke highly of his experience in Nevada, particularly commenting on the nice weather and the skiing. His more serious pursuits in academics and his growing research success, however, attracted notice from faculty across the country.

In the summer of 1992, Scott received a letter from Kelly, inviting him to present at an organic chemistry symposium at BC in the fall. After giving a talk on his research at BC, Scott said he returned to Reno with no plans to change.

Ten days after arriving home, however, Scott received a call from Kelly, asking him to fly back out to Boston to meet the rest of the faculty and consider joining BC’s growing chemistry department. Scott was initially hesitant-he was happy with the life that he and his wife had established with their four daughters in Nevada-but Kelly promised that he could be happy in Boston too.

“One thing led to another, and by the next summer, I was here,” Scott said. “That was in 1993, so this is my 20th year. And they were right-it’s a great department, good students that are fun to teach, and it’s Boston.”

Twenty years later, Kelly is more than happy with his decision to reach out to Scott as an addition to the faculty. “He is truly a man of many talents and a great person to have as a colleague,” Kelly said.

Since his move to BC in the early ’90s, Scott’s career in organic chemistry research, particularly with carbon rich materials, has been remarkably successful. In the early 2000s, his research group was the first in the world to develop a rational synthesis of buckminsterfullerene, a 60-carbon structure shaped like a soccer ball with potential applications in superconductors, HIV/AIDS research, and alternative fuels.

In recent years, his group has also advanced the synthesis of electrically conductive carbon nanotubes and nanowires, which have the potential to decrease the size of common circuits and transistors-like those used in computers and smartphones-by several orders of magnitude.

Kelly, who has been a chemistry professor at BC since 1969, spoke highly of Scott’s research over the last 20 years. “Scientifically, Larry has earned international recognition for himself and his students, for the chemistry department, and for BC,” Kelly said.

Snapper, who gravitated to Scott as a role model when they both arrived in the early ’90s, agreed with Kelly. “Professor Scott has been a wonderful, productive member of this department where he has shown us how to pursue cutting-edge research, have a strong commitment to excellence in teaching, and enjoy the position all along the way,” Snapper said. “Given his well thought out views and balanced opinions on all sorts of professional matters, I would often seek out his advice and guidance, which he was always happy to provide.”

Scott’s achievements as a researcher and laboratory director have been lauded in the worldwide organic chemistry community. Since 2011, he has served on the editorial advisory board of The Journal of Organic Chemistry, the most cited journal in organic chemistry. Also in 2011, Scott received the George A. Olah Award for Hydrocarbon Chemistry, the area of organic chemistry on which his research centers. The book he compiled and edited, Fragments of Fullerenes and Carbon Nanotubes, received the Alpha Sigma Nu book award.

Scott was also recently elected a fellow of the American Chemical Society (ACS), and this year serves as chairman of the division of organic chemistry within the ACS, the largest of the organization’s many divisions. As chair of the ACS, Scott has established awards for outstanding undergraduate students at every college and university in organic chemistry.

As an instructor, Scott has taught both the main sophomore organic chemistry course and upper level graduate classes in organic chemistry, but much of his instruction, particularly in recent years, has focused on the honors chemistry track. In this program, Scott teaches two semesters of organic chemistry to the most qualified incoming students, beginning in the spring of the freshman year.

While his research has earned him invitations to speak around the world, Scott remains humble, easily expressing complex concepts in layman’s terms. It is this ability to simplify complicated and intricate chemistry problems that has earned him such an outstanding reputation as a teacher.

“As a teacher, I loved professor Scott,” said Ben Wilson, A&S ’14, who had Scott as an instructor for two semesters of honors organic chemistry and has worked in his lab doing undergraduate research. “He knows how to put the material in a way that’s understandable, especially for people taking organic chemistry.”

Corleone Delaveris, A&S ’15, had Scott for honors organic chemistry a year later, and also spoke highly of Scott’s skill as an instructor.

“[Professor Scott] is an excellent teacher and goes to great lengths to make sure that his students are able to understand the complex content,” Delaveris said. “He once told us organic synthesis is like chess-you need to be thinking five steps ahead and always consider the innumerable options available.”

Dean of Students Paul Chebator didn’t speak to Scott’s academic accomplishments, but rather to his personality-the two have been friends for many years, and have plans to travel to Italy together with their families this summer.

“[Larry’s] such a humble person, and it just blows me away when I read about his professional accomplishments and see the renown that he’s held in,” Chebator said. “You would never know it from talking to him.”

Although many outsiders might assume that chemistry professors are an equal mix of intimidating and nerdy, Scott’s laidback yet intellectual attitude has resulted in many positive relationships with both students and colleagues.

“[Larry’s] really a laidback, banjo-picking kind of guy-he does play the banjo,” Chebator said. “He’s a genuinely caring, warm human being, who will do anything for a friend and who really cares about people, cares about BC students.”

Since Scott’s arrival in the early 1990s, the chemistry department at BC has seen tremendous growth. Today, there are more than 50 graduate students in organic chemistry, contributing to the chemistry department’s status as the largest doctoral graduate program at the University. The organic chemistry graduate program at BC is now tied with Yale University for 16th-best in the country, and the department-wide research grants total as high as $6 million annually.

In light of his success and his contributions to the department, Scott looks back on his research and experiences at BC with a smile, but knows that at some point his career in chemistry will come to an end.

“I’m not anxious to retire, but I realize that I should, at some point, retire,” Scott said. “I have friends who have continued on to 80, and I know people who keep going into their 90s. And some people are able to do that productively, but some people really should have retired earlier, sort of like boxers who can’t give it up.

“I would keep doing it, but it’s time for somebody else to move into this office and take over my labs.”

With recent developments in his group’s research, Scott hopes to end his career on an upward trajectory of success, and then spend a little more time with his banjo and guitar.


May 2, 2013
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