Houk, Kendall N.

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Faculty; Distinguished Professor; Saul Winstein Distinguished Research Chair in Organic Chemistry
Chemical Biology
Theoretical Chemistry

Contact Information

Molecular Sciences Building 5505B
(310) 206-0515
Molecular Sciences Building 5240, 5440
(310) 825-0269

Short Biography

K. N. Houk received his Ph.D. at Harvard with R. B. Woodward.  He taught at Louisiana State University, the University of Pittsburgh, and UCLA since 1986.  He was Director of the Chemistry Division of the National Science Foundation in 1988-90.  He is the Saul Winstein Research Chair in Organic Chemistry.  He has many ACS awards:  Arthur C. Cope Scholar Award, James Flack Norris Award in Physical Organic Chemistry, Award for Computers in Chemical and Pharmaceutical Sciences, and the Arthur C. Cope Award.  He also won the Schrödinger Medal of the WATOC and the Robert Robinson Award of the Royal Society of Chemistry.  He is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the International Academy of Quantum Molecular Sciences, the National Academy of Sciences, and is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Chemistry.  He collaborates prodigiously with chemists all over the world, has published over 1270 articles, has an h-index of 131, and is among the 100 most-cited chemists.

For more information on Professor Houk's research, please visit his website.


K. N. Houk received his A.B., M.S., and Ph.D. degrees at Harvard, working with R. B. Woodward on experimental tests of orbital symmetry selection rules.  In 1968, he joined the faculty at Louisiana State University, moved to the University of Pittsburgh in 1980, and to UCLA in 1986.  From 1988-1990, he was Director of the Chemistry Division of the National Science Foundation.  He was Chairman of the UCLA Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry from 1991-1994 and became the Saul Winstein Chair in Organic Chemistry in 2009.

            Professor Houk has been awarded the von Humboldt Foundation U.S. Senior Scientist Award in 1981, an Arthur C. Cope Scholar Award from the ACS in 1988, the 1991 ACS James Flack Norris Award in Physical Organic Chemistry, and the 1998 of the Schrödinger Medal of the World Association of Theoretical and Computational Chemists (WATOC).  He was the Faculty Research Lecturer at UCLA, received the Bruylants Chair from the University of Louvain-la-Neuve in Belgium in 1998, and received an honorary doctorate (Dr. rer. nat. h. c.) from the University of Essen in Germany in 1999.  He has been an Erskine Fellow in New Zealand, a Lady Davis Fellow at the Technion in Haifa, Israel, and a JSPS Fellow in Japan.  He was named Honorary Professor at the University of Queensland, Brisbane, Australia, in 2014.  He won the Tolman Medal of the Southern California Section of the ACS in 1999.  He was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 2002 and the International Academy of Quantum Molecular Sciences in 2003.  He was the 2003 winner of the ACS Award for Computers in Chemical and Pharmaceutical Sciences.  He is a Fellow of the AAAS, the ACS, and of the WATOC. He was awarded the Arthur C. Cope Award of the ACS in 2009, was elected a member of the National Academy of Sciences in 2010, became a Fellow of the Royal Society of Chemistry in 2012, and was awarded the Robert Robinson Award of the Royal Society of Chemistry in 2012.  He received the UCLA Society of Postdoctoral Scholars Mentoring Award and the UCLA Glenn T. Seaborg Medal in 2013.  In 2019, he was appointed as a Visiting Lecturer at Nanjing Agricultural University.

            Houk has served on the Advisory Boards of the Chemistry Division of the National Science Foundation, the ACS Petroleum Research Fund, and a variety of journals, including Accounts of Chemical Research, the Journal of the American Chemical Society, the Journal of Organic Chemistry, Chemical and Engineering News, the Journal of Computational Chemistry, the Journal of Chemical Theory and Computation, Chemistry - A European Journal, and Topics in Current Chemistry.  He has been a member of the NIH Medicinal Chemistry and Synthesis and Biological Chemistry Study Sections and the NRC Board of Chemical Sciences and Technology.  He was Chair of the Chemistry Section of the AAAS in 2000-2003.  He was a Senior Editor of Accounts of Chemical Research from 2005-2015.  He was Director of the UCLA Chemistry-Biology Interface Training Program from 2002-2012 and is a member of the UCLA Molecular Biology Institute and the California NanoSystems Institute.  Since 2018, he has been the North American Co-Chair of Chemistry – A European Journal.

            Professor Houk is an authority on theoretical and computational organic chemistry.  His group is involved in developments of rules to understand reactivity, computer modeling of complex organic reactions, and experimental tests of the predictions of theory.  He collaborates prodigiously with chemists all over the world.  Among current interests are the theoretical investigations and design of enzyme-catalyzed reactions, the quantitative modeling of asymmetric reactions used in synthesis and the mechanisms and dynamics of pericyclic reactions and competing diradical processes.  He has published about 1270 articles in refereed journals and is a Highly Cited Researcher, with an h-index of 131.


Research Interests

The Houk Group solves problems in organic and bio-organic chemistry using theoretical and computational methods and programs. Theoretical predictions and designs of new reactions, reagents, and catalysts are tested experimentally in the Houk lab or with collaborators. The group is currently heavily involved in the study of dynamics of chemical reactions and the motions and properties of nanomachines.

The Houk Group conducts research in the following areas:

• Enzyme mechanisms and selectivities

• Prediction of novel catalytic enzymes

• Pericyclases: enzymes that catalyze pericyclic reactions

• Dynamics and properties of nanomachines

• Mechanisms and design of stereoselective organic reactions and catalysts

• Pericyclic reaction mechanisms, rates, and synthetic applications

• Bioorthogonal cycloadditions

• Ambimodal and polypericyclic transition states

• Molecular dynamics of chemical reactions

• Organometallic reaction mechanisms and CH functionalization

• Organic materials, molecular devices, and host-guest chemistry

Honors & Awards

  • Fellow of the Royal Society of Chemistry
  • Robert Robinson Award of the Royal Society of Chemistry
  • UCLA Society of Postdoctoral Scholars Mentoring Award
  • UCLA Glenn T. Seaborg Medal
  • Computers in Chemical and Pharmaceutical Research ACS Award for Computers in Chemistry and Pharmaceutical Research
  • American Academy of Arts and Sciences American Academy of Arts and Sciences
  • Japanese Society for the Promotion of Science Fellow of the JSPS
  • Hebrew University, Jerusalem Israel Lise Meitner Lecturer
  • Technion, Israel Lady Davis Fellow
  • American Chemical Society Southern California Section Tolman Medal
  • World Association of Theoretical Organic Chemistry Schrodinger Medal
  • University of Canterbury, Christchurch, New Zealand Visiting Erskine Fellow
  • Herbert Newby McCoy Award, UCLA
  • James Flack Norris Award in Physical Organic Chemistry
  • Arthur C. Cope Scholar Award
  • Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science
  • Akron Section of the American Chemical Society Award
  • Von Humboldt U.S. Senior Scientist Award
  • LSU Distinguished Research Master Award
  • Alfred P. Sloan Foundation Research Fellowship
  • Camille and Henry Dreyfus Teacher-Scholar Grant
  • American Association for the Advancement of Science
  • American Chemical Society
  • Chemical Society of London
  • International Society of Quantum Biology
  • Inter-American Photochemical Society
  • International Academy of Quantum Moelcular Science


  • 1973 K. N. Houk, J. Sims, R. E. Duke Jr., R. W. Strozier, and J. K. George. Frontier Molecular Orbitals of 1,3-Dipoles and Dipolarophiles.  J. Am. Chem. Soc. 95: 7287.
  • 1973 K. N. Houk, J. Sims, C. R. Watts, and L. J. Luskus. The Origin of Reactivity, Regioiselectivity, and Periselectivity in 1,3-Dipolar Cycloadditions.  J. Am. Chem. Soc. 95: 7301.
  • 1975 K. N. Houk. The Frontier Molecular Orbital Theory of Cycloaddition Reactions.  Acc. Chem. Res. 8: 361.
  • 1980 N. G. Rondan, K. N. Houk, and R. A. Moss. Transition States and Selectivities of Singlet Carbene Cycloadditions.  J. Am. Chem. Soc. 102: 1770.
  • 1984 K. N. Houk and N. G. Rondan. Origin of Negative Activation Energies and Entropy Control of Halocarbene Cycloadditions and Related Fast Reactions.  J. Am. Chem. Soc. 106: 4293.
  • 1985 N. G. Rondan and K. N. Houk. Theory of Stereoselection in Conrotatory Electrocyclic Reactions of Substituted Cyclobutenes.  J. Am. Chem. Soc. 107: 2099.
  • 1986 K. N. Houk, M. N. Paddon-Row, N. G. Rondan, Y.-D. Wu, F. K. Brown, D. C. Spellmeyer, J. T. Metz, Y. Li, and R. J. Loncharich. Theory and Modeling of Stereoselective Organic Reactions.  Science 231: 1108.
  • 1987 D. C. Spellmeyer and K. N. Houk. A Force-Field Model for Intramolecular Radical Additions.  J. Org. Chem. 52: 959.
  • 1987 K. Rudolf, D. C. Spellmeyer, and K. N. Houk. Prediction and Experimental Verification of the Stereoselective Electrocyclization of 3-Formylcyclobutene.  J. Org. Chem. 52: 3708.
  • 1992 K. N. Houk, Yi Li, and J. D. Evanseck. Transition Structures of Hydrocarbon Pericyclic Reactions.  Angew. Chemie 104: 711-739; Int. Ed. Engl. 31: 682-708.
  • 2003 K. N. Houk, Andrew G. Leach, Susanna P. Kim, Xiyun Zhang. Binding Affinities of Host-Guest, Protein-Ligand, and Protein-Transition-State Complexes.  Angew. Chem. Int. Ed. 42: 4872-4897.
  • 2004 F. R. Clemente and K. N. Houk. Computational Proof of the Enamine Mechanism of Intramolecular Aldol Reactions Catalyzed by Proline.  Angew. Chem. Int. Ed. 43: 5766-5768.
  • 2005 Xiyun Zhang and Kendall N. Houk. Why Enzymes Are Proficient Catalysts: Beyond the Pauling Paradigm.  Acc. Chem. Res. 38: 379-385.
  • 2007 Daniel H. Ess and K. N. Houk. 
  • Distortion/Interaction Energy Control of 1,3-Dipolar Cycloaddition Reactivity.  J. Am. Chem. Soc. 129: 10646-10647.
  • 2008 Lin Jiang, Eric A. Althoff, Fernando R. Clemente, Lindsey Doyle, Daniela Rothlisberger, Alexandre Zanghellini, Jasmine L. Gallaher, Jamie L. Betker, Fujie Tanaka, Carlos F. Barbas, III, Donald Hilvert, Kendall N. Houk, Barry L. Stoddard, and David Baker. De novo Computational Design of Retro-Aldol Enzymes.  Science 319: 1387-1391.
  • 2008 Daniela Rothlisberger, Olga Khersonsky, Andrew M. Wollacott, Lin Jiang, Jason DeChancie, Jamie Betker, Jasmine L. Gallaher, Eric A. Althoff, Alexandre Zanghellini, Orly Dym, Shira Albeck, Kendall N. Houk, Dan S. Tawfik, and David Baker. Kemp Elimination Catalysts by Computation Enzyme Design.  Nature 453: 190-195.
  • 2009 Lai Xu, Charles E. Doubleday, and K. N. Houk. Dynamics of 1,3-Dipolar Cycloaddition Reactions of Diazonium Betaines to Acetylene and Ethylene: Bending Vibrations Facilitate Reaction.  Angew. Chem. Int. Ed. 48: 2746-2748.
  • 2012 Peng Liu, Xiufang Xu, Xiaofei Dong, Benjamin K. Keitz, Myles B. Herbert, Robert H. Grubbs, and K. N. Houk.  Z-Selectivity in Olefin Metathesis with Chelated Ru Catalysts: Computational Studies of Mechanism and Selectivity.  J. Am. Chem. Soc. 134: 1464-1467.
  • 2012 Kersey Black, Peng Liu, Lai Xu, Charles Doubleday, and Kendall N. Houk. Inaugural Article: Dynamics, Transition States, and Timing of Bond Formation in Diels-Alder Reactions.  Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. USA 109: 12860-12865.
  • 2012 Yong Liang, Joel L. Mackey, Steven A. Lopez, Fang Liu, and K. N. Houk. Control and Design of Mutual Orthogonality in Bioorthogonal Cycloadditions.  J. Am. Chem. Soc. 134: 17904-17907.
  • 2013 Gert Kiss, Nihan Celebi-Olcum, Rocco Moretti, David Baker, and K. N. Houk. Computational Enzyme Design.  Angew. Chem. Int. Ed. 52: 5700-5725.
  • 2014 Fang Liu, Roger C. Helgeson, and K. N. Houk. Building on Cram's Legacy: Stimulated Gating in Hemicarcerands.  Acc. Chem. Res. 47: 2168-2176.
  • 2018 Russell D. Lewis, Marc Garcia-Borras, Matthew J. Chalkley, Andrew R. Buller, K. N. Houk, S. B. Jennifer Kan, and Frances H. Arnold. Catalytic Iron-Carbene Intermediate Revealed in a Cytochrome c Carbene Transferase.  Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. USA 115: 7308-7313.
  • 2018 Jian Zhang, Peiyuan Yu, Shao-Yu Li, He Sun, Shao-Hua Xiang, Jun (Joelle) Wang, Kendall N. Houk, and Bin Tan. Asymmetric Phosphoric Acid-Catalyzed Four-Component Ugi Reaction.  Science 361: eaas8707.
  • 2019 Cooper S. Jamieson, Masao Ohashi, Fang Liu, Yi Tang, and K. N. Houk. The Expanding World of Biosynthetic Pericyclases: Cooperation of Experiment and Theory for Discovery.  Nat. Prod. Rep. 36: 698-713.