Friday, March 29, 2013

A Taxol synthesis is simple

I got the results back from NSF fellowship application today. I didn't get the fellowship, but that doesn't matter. Something funny was that one of the reviewers said my “proposed project looked simple or at least written that way.”

I’m the chump working on the taxane project. The overall goal is in the figure below. You might have seen the Nature Chemistry paper where we described the construction of the taxane skeleton. My project involves multiple C-H oxidation transformations on this skeleton en route to Taxol. Simple, right?

I’m not here to toot my own horn or rally up a pity party, but I think every chemist familiar with synthetic organic chemistry will agree this endeavor is somewhere between crazy difficult and flat-out impossible. No one would claim it looks simple. Then why is this NSF reviewer judging my application if they don’t see the difficulty of this project?

To be clear, I wouldn't care if I scored “excellent” on everything and still didn't get the fellowship. There are many people deserving of this award, and who am I to say I deserve it more than anyone else? Also, there are plenty of reasons to not fund me or this project. My problem is that reviewers are unqualified to judge my “intellectual merit” if they don’t know the basic frontiers of my field. I guess the moral of the story is don’t assume people know why your science is hard. Be very explicit. This problem probably applies to some extent to other award applications and even applying for a job.


  1. Sorry, dude, that sucks. I think you've drawn the right lesson from it.

  2. Face it, you're TOO good at total synthesis. You make the flat-out impossible seem trivial, but is that a blessing, or a curse?

  3. Unfortunately, there is a lot of harsh criticism, even hostility, towards synthesis - and I share your view that some of it may simple be due to ignorance. We need to explain better why this is hard and where are the challenges. Thanks for sharing this.

  4. a colleague once lost it, on a big company medchem project meeting with the management and biologists and crystallographers and computer modeling guys in audience - few of them visibly aspiring for promotion - after "helpful" comments how great it would be to make dozen additional analogs to test the binding mode hypothesis - with various rings swapped and functional groups moved around here and there. He bellowed: "You guys really think we make this from LEGO?"

  5. Was this reviewer an actual chemist? Probably not an organic one, for sure...

    That is the trouble when you try to explain your work to people unfamiliar with the field. You need to keep it simple enough so they don't get lost whilst keeping it looking difficult. A hard balance to find.

    Sorry for your fellowship.