2023 John D. and Edith M. Roberts Lecture

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UCLA’s newest innovative organic chemist Professor Soumitra Athavale presented the 2023 John D. and Edith M. Roberts Lecture at UCLA on October 10.  

Prior to joining the UCLA faculty as an assistant professor in July 2023, Athavale was a postdoctoral researcher with Professor Frances Arnold at the California Institute of Technology.  Athavale received his B.S. and M.S. degrees in Chemistry and Biology from the Indian Institute of Science Education and Research in Pune, India.  He then joined Professor Scott Denmark’s lab at University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign and received his Ph.D. degree in Organic Chemistry in 2019. In 2020, as a solo participant, he was a co-winner of the Merck Compound challenge, which is a global retrosynthesis challenge including over 100 world-leading competing teams.   

(Left) During his opening remarks, Prof. Ken Houk spoke about Prof. John D. Roberts (pictured on the slide) and his wife, Edith M. Roberts, whom the lecture honors, and how their lives enriched science and society. (Right) Prof. Soumitra Athavale during the Q&A session.
During the Q&A session – (left) Prof. Stuart Conway and (right) graduate student Luca McDermott.
(Left) After his lecture, Prof. Athavale was presented with a crystal award by Prof. Houk. (Right) At the reception following the lecture, Profs. Houk, Surya Prakash (USC, Director of Loker Hydrocarbon Institute and former Chair of Chemistry, also now the Olah Chair in Chemistry), Athavale, and Dean of Physical Sciences Miguel A. García-Garibay.

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.

“Soumitra exemplifies the qualities fostered by Jack Roberts,” said Professor Ken Houk in his introduction. “Modern physical organic chemistry now includes applications of modern spectroscopy, computation, and the study of biological processes and harnessing them for use in chemistry.  Jack Roberts would appreciate the ways that Soumitra is advancing further the scope and impact of physical organic chemistry at UCLA.”

The Roberts Lecture is made possible by fund raising efforts spearheaded by Houk and the late 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.  World-renowned physical organic chemist and neuroscientist Dennis Dougherty (Caltech) presented the 2021 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

A 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.