Still Working Toward Convergence in Total Synthesis

I was at the Natural Products and Bioactive Compounds Gordon Research Conference (GRC) last summer. During the usual free time one afternoon, there was a roundtable discussion about the challenges faced by women in science and strategies to overcome those challenges. The conversation was promoted by the GRC organization, which made sure there was an attendee to serve as a facilitator. (Shoutout to our facilitator Michelle Garnsey from Pfizer. Michelle was smart, prepared, and fair. Because of her, our conversation remained lively but also productive.) Sessions like this have been happening at most GRCs for the past couple of years. They have been branded “The GRC Power Hour, ” described as,

“[an] optional informal gathering open to all meeting participants. It is designed to help address the challenges women face in science and support the professional growth of women in our communities by providing an open forum for discussion and mentoring.”

Although the GRC supports The Power Hour, by no means is there a broader agenda or any top-down pressure to achieve a certain result. Rather, it seems to be the perfect opportunity for attendees within the varied technical groups at GRC meetings to explicitly grapple with the issue, hopefully share some best practices, and also provide another opportunity for attendees to network with each other.

Remember this was The Power Hour at a Natural Products meeting; older folks will sense the apparent paradox there. Natural Products is amongst the oldest of the GRCs, with over 50 years of meetings under its belt, and historically it had a reputation for being somewhat of a good old boys conference. It’s a shame if that perception persists, though, because the organizers have been very effective at making an inclusive meeting in terms of both the technical program and the tone of the social events. Even more important is the fact that the rank-and-file regulars are aware of and sensitive to the challenges that women face in science – in part because many of these regulars are women in science themselves!

The one key take-away from the session was a renewed awareness of unconscious bias. It is the type of thing that is best to be talked about (and heard) over and over. My logic is that the repetition might eventually foster groups to think, “Let’s check ourselves,” so that real progress can be made toward gender parity. There were plenty of participants – probably two-dozen or so – of all genders and from both industry and academia. The tenor of the conversation was also very good from my perspective; there was the mutual respect that you hope to have at this type of meeting and everyone who spoke made thoughtful observations. I applaud The Power Hour and hope that it remains as a staple of GRC meetings. Wouldn’t it be great if ideas from those GRC conversations made it to faculty meetings in academia and board meetings in industry? Even from a position of significant privilege, like mine, it is obvious that there is a lot of work to do.

One question, hyper-topical to Natural Products, revealed a particular shortcoming in the field related to gender representation. At some point, someone asked, “How many female professors are doing total synthesis?” By this it was implicitly clear that we were talking about target oriented, natural product total synthesis. This was originally the bread-and-butter of the Natural Products GRC, although the title of the meeting now includes “and Bioactive Compounds,” another explicit signal of an attempt to be more inclusive. There was short silence and some murmurs, but names didn’t flow in a way that would have if the question had been about male professors doing total synthesis. One name that did come up was Sarah Reisman, who coincidentally was the author of a communication covered in one of my “deconstructed synthesis communication” posts. The fact that a group of a few dozen people, actively engaged in synthesis in one way or the other and attending a synthetic chemistry conference, could come up with only one name was disheartening.

The incident prompted me to do some searching through the literature to find female corresponding authors on total synthesis papers in the last decade or so. It is fair to say that the field of total synthesis is far from achieving convergence with respect to gender parity. Below is a list of female PIs currently active in the field of total synthesis along with a representative citation from each. I’ve also added another list of groups doing synthesis (analogs, etc.) and/or reaction development and methodology. The second list is longer, which is encouraging.  Thanks to Matt McIntosh’s organic links page for leads on several of these names. It goes without saying, though, that I have overlooked names I should not have. I’m eager to add them, so let me know names of groups and citations that should be included. It’s a big tent; let’s fill it up.

Total Synthesis

1) Janine Cossy – ESPCI, Paris Tech, CNRS

Synthetic Approach to Wortmannilactone C

Damien Brandt, Aurélia Dittoo, Véronique Bellosta, and Janine Cossy*

Org. Lett.201517, 816–819  DOI: 10.1021/ol5036112


2) Allison Frontier – University of Rochester

Synthesis of (±)-Tetrapetalone A-Me Aglycon

Peter N. Carlsen, Tyler J. Mann, Amir H. Hoveyda, Allison J. Frontier*

Angew Chem. Int. Ed. 201453, 9334-9338  DOI: 10.1002/anie.201404410


3) Gunda Georg – University of Minnesota

Synthesis of Oximidine II by a Copper-Mediated Reductive Ene–Yne Macrocyclization

Christopher M. Schneider, Kriangsak Khownium, Wei Li, Jared T. Spletstoser, Torsten Haack, Gunda I. Georg*

Angew Chem. Int. Ed. 201150, 7855-7857  DOI: 10.1002/anie.201103081


4) Marisa Kozlowski – University of Pennsylvania

Dynamic Stereochemistry Transfer in a Transannular Aldol Reaction: Total Synthesis of Hypocrellin A

Erin M. O’Brien, Barbara J. Morgan, Marisa C. Kozlowski*

Angew. Chem. Int. Ed. 2008, 47, 6877-6880  DOI: 10.1002/anie.200800734


5) Kathyln Parker – Stony Brook

Intermolecular Radical Cation Diels–Alder (RCDA) Reaction of Bicyclooctadienes: Biomimetic Formal Total Synthesis of Kingianin A and Total Syntheses of Kingianins D, F, H, and J

Hee Nam Lim and Kathy A. Parker

J. Org. Chem. 2014, 79, 919–926  DOI: 10.1021/jo402082y


6) Sarah Reisman – California Institute of Technology

Chemical Synthesis of (+)-Ryanodine and (+)-20-Deoxyspiganthine

Chen Xu Arthur Han, Scott C. Virgil, and Sarah E. Reisman

ACS Cent. Sci.20173, 278–282  DOI: 10.1021/acscentsci.6b00361

Synthesis & Methodology

Laura Anderson – University of Illinois Chicago

Suzanne Blum – UC Irvine

Stacey Brenner – Brooklyn College CUNY

Kay Brummond – University of Pittsburgh

Sherry Chemler – University of Buffalo

Maria Contel – Brooklyn College CUNY

Tianning Dao – New York University

Vy Dong – UC Irvine

Abby Doyle – Princeton University

Annaliese Franz – UC Davis

Laina Geary – University of Nevada

Jackie Gervay-Hague – UC Davis

Joanne Harvey – Victoria University of Wellington

Jessica Hoover – West Virginia University

Amy Howell – University of Connecticut

Kami Hull – University of Illinois

Elizabeth Jarvo – UC Irvine

Madeline Jouille – University of Pennsylvania

Catharine Larsen – UC Riverside

Janis Louie – University of Utah

Ohyun Kwon – UCLA

Helena Malinakova – University of Kansas

Anita Mattson – Worcester Polytechnic Institute

Jennifer Roizen – Duke University

Melanie Sanford – University of Michigan

Corinna Schindler – University of Michigan

Jennifer Schomaker – University of Wisconsin

Irina Smoliakova – University of North Dakota

Jennifer Stockdill – Wayne State University

Carol Taylor – Louisiana State University

Nancy Totah – Syracuse University

Mary Watson – University of Delaware

M. Cristina White – University of Illinois Urbana Champaign

Sheryl Wiskur – University of South Carolina

Dan Yang – Hong Kong University

Barbara Zajc – CCNY


1. I clearly have no first hand knowledge of the challenges faced by women or people of color in science or society in general. I can claim sympathy for, and support of equality for all groups, however. This post attempts to make a simple observation about the representation by women in a very specific sub-discipline of organic chemistry: total synthesis.

2. Thank yous to Michelle Garnsey at Pfizer and Amber Onorato at Northern Kentucky University for reading an early version of the post and suggesting improvements.