2021 John D. and Edith M. Roberts Lecture

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World-renowned physical organic chemist and neuroscientist Dennis Dougherty (Caltech) presented the 2021 John D and Edith M Roberts Lecture at UCLA on November 18.  

Dougherty is the George Grant Hoag Professor of Chemistry and the Norman Davidson Leadership Chair in the Division of Chemistry & Chemical Engineering at the California Institute of Technology and co-author of the widely used textbook Modern Physical Organic Chemistry.  

Established in 2016, the John D. and Edith M. Roberts lecture honors alumnus and Caltech professor John D. (“Jack”) Roberts (1918-2016), who was one of the most influential chemists of the last 75 years.

John and Edith Roberts“What can I tell you about Jack Roberts that hasn’t already been said,” Dougherty said in his opening remarks. “Jack was amazing in every way but he had a secret weapon throughout his entire career and that was Edith Roberts. Edith was an amazing person. For every way that Jack was kind of gruff – frankly – and at times aggressive and downright annoying, in a charming and wonderful way, Edith was the exact opposite, the most wonderful, nice, kind woman you’d ever met. A smile that was amazing. Also herself a force of nature, Edith was quite formidable.” John and Edith Roberts are pictured at right.

Dougherty’s lecture was a wonderful combination of his fundamental discoveries about how aromatic groups can stabilize cations, and how he and his Biologist colleague at Caltech, Henry Lester, found that these cation-pi electron interactions are so important in ion channels and in controlling the chemistry of neurotransmitters in the brain. One of the hallmarks of their research is the ability to introduce unnatural fluorinated amino acids into ion channels and to observe how these influence the passage of neurotransmitters across cell membranes related to processes that occur in the brain.

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(Left) Professor Dennis Dougherty (Caltech) and Professor Ken Houk before the lecture. (Right) Chair Professor Neil Garg and Houk presented Dougherty with an engraved crystal plaque after his lecture.  Roberts Lecture 21 2
The lecture was held in Rolfe Hall on the UCLA campus. Roberts Lecture 21 4
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Students and faculty gathered for a reception before and after the lecture.

The Roberts Lecture is made possible by fund raising efforts spearheaded by Houk and Professor Marjorie Caserio, Chancellor Emerita, University of California, San Diego. Caserio was a postdoc in Roberts’ lab in the 50’s and in the 60’s she and Roberts co-wrote the popular textbook

Basic Principles of Organic Chemistry.  

Houk gave the inaugural Roberts lecture in 2016 and Roberts’ former group members Professors George Whitesides (Harvard) and David Schuster (NYU) presented at the 2018 Roberts lecture

In addition to supporting the lecture, funds from many former Roberts group members, the Roberts family, UCLA faculty members, and the Jung matching funds helped to establish the new The John D. and Edith M. Roberts Term Chair in Organic Chemistry.    

About John D. Roberts

Roberts JohnA true Bruin, Roberts received his B.A. degree at UCLA 1941 and his Ph.D. in 1944 under the direction of William G. Young. He continued at UCLA as an Instructor from 1944-45. Following positions at UCLA, Harvard, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Roberts joined the organic chemistry faculty at Caltech in 1952. To learn more about Roberts’ life and accomplishments, read the special tribute to Roberts written by Ken Houk and alumna Dr. Fang Liu (Ph.D. ’14 Houk group), which was published in the February 14, 2018 issue of the Journal of Physical Organic Chemistry

Penny Jennings, UCLA Department of Chemistry & Biochemistry, penny@chem.ucla.edu.