8 R&DMagazine December 2013 www.rdmag.com
SCIENTIST OF THE YEAR
In helping advance understanding of nanoscale science, the 2013 R&D Magazine Scientist
of the Year reveals an uncommon drive to discover.
In the late 1980s, when setting up his first laboratory, an asst. prof. of chemistry at the Univ. of South Carolina had a conversa- tion with a scientist at IBM Yorktown, Avi
Aviram, who had recently authored a paper
speculating on a new type of perpendicularly
shaped molecule that, if artificially created and
equipped with active sensing points, could be
used as a molecular switch for computing.
The young professor politely asked if this
molecule had ever been created. “No,” was Aviram’s response.
To James M. Tour, the chemist in question
and the 2013 R&D Magazine Scientist of the Year,
the response was an open invitation to try something new. Aviram was delighted to find someone
interested in the project, but Tour had a problem:
The proposed synthesis, if created, would be the
most complex molecule ever created in the laboratory. He didn’t realize this at the time, and when
Scientific American called to congratulate him on
his accomplishment, he would only concede that
it had been “reasonably hard”.
Tour has made a habit of tackling the “rea-
sonably hard”, making numerous discoveries
in chemistry and materials, many with the help
of students, by not worrying about the level of
difficulty. Now the T. and W. F. Chao Professor of
Chemistry at Rice Univ., Tour has published more
than 500 research papers, been awarded more than
100 patents and averages more than 3,000 citations
per year. In 2009, he was ranked one of the top 10
chemists in the world by Thomson Reuters.
To protect and serve science
Born in White Plains, N. Y., Tour did not initially
want to be a chemist. He wanted to be a New York
state trooper, a dream that was dashed when he
was denied academy acceptance because of color
blindness. A career in forensics, he decided, would
be the next best thing. When he took organic
chemistry as part of his studies at Syracuse Univ.,
however, he loved it.
“I remember I would find an empty classroom
and work on problems at the end of each chapter.
That’s how much I loved organic chemistry,” he
says. “It really was the first time I found something
that I truly enjoyed doing.”
Tour also distinctly recalls the moment when
he began to think carefully about the direction of
his career. Shortly after joining the graduate pro-
gram in chemistry at Purdue Univ. in the mid-
1980s, he was at the thermal printout recorder
of his laboratory’s gas chromatograph when his
professor, Ei-ichi Negishi, entered the room
and began talking about the future of synthetic
chemistry. He predicted funding for his area of
work would diminish in the coming years as
interest in bio-organic and materials chemistry
increased. Polymers, in particular, would be an
Negishi, a mentor to Tour, was correct.
Important new discoveries were being made in
bio-organic chemistry and synthetic organic
materials by chemists like Richard Schrock and
These breakthroughs fascinated Tour, and he
tried his hand in catalysis work. In 1986, Tour
began postdoctoral studies at the Univ. of Wiscon-
sin and then Stanford Univ. with Barry Trost, and
he recalls binding a new nickel-chromium bime-
tallic catalyst system to derivatized polystyrene to
enhance the catalyst’s stability and selectivity.
It was at Stanford that Tour made several connections that would complete his transition into
polymer chemistry. John Stille of Colorado State
Univ., a polymer chemist who had transitioned
into synthetic organic chemistry, visited the campus and told him to visit IBM Almaden Research
Center, where scientists such as C. Grant Willson
and Bob Miller were doing advanced work in
polymers. Tour spoke with Miller, learning as
much polymer chemistry as possible.
IBM would again open a door in an unexpected way when Aviram inspired Tour and his students to create an artificial spirofused molecular
switch. What really opened the young chemist’s
eyes was the intense level of interest from
Scientific American and others. At that point, Tour realized the power of synthetic chemistry: A solution
or new product in natural chemistry might take
a decade of work, but in just a short time he and
his group had gotten widespread recognition.
The recognition was undeserved, he believed, but
as a young researcher in need of both results and
funding, the revelation was important.
One of Tour’s major characteristics is his
drive. Colleagues and associates routinely
remark on his ability to give 100% to everything
he does. A common day for him is to rise at 3: 30
a.m., spend two hours studying scripture, spend
90 min at the gym and continue to the laboratory to “begin” the work day. In his early years
this included the ability to work endlessly on
funding proposals. When he first started his laboratory, he submitted 37 proposals in 36 months
to the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and
the National Science Foundation (NSF). These
proposals took a lot of time to prepare, and his
success rate was low. He also began to aggressively file patents—he has been granted more than
100 in his career. This effort became important
later in his career when support from industrial
licensors of his and his university’s intellectual
properties allowed him to achieve some freedom
from the vagaries of federal funding. He is now
heavily supported by oil companies, who recognize the value of nanotechnology for resource
Dr. James M. Tour. Photo: Rice Univ.