Chemistry and Biochemistry

BYU Grads Develop Process to Synthesize Naturally-Ocurring Molecule Minfiensine in Nine Chemical Steps

Posted: in Alumni, Feb 08, 2010

BYU graduates Spencer Jones and Bryon Simmons have developed a process to synthesize the naturally occurring molecule minfiensine in only nine chemical steps. The two are currently doing graduate coursework at the University of Princeton. They worked on this project together with their Ph.D. advisor Dr. David MacMillan.

The process they created is catalytic and enantioselective, meaning they were able to use a catalyst to prepare only one of the mirror images of the target molecule—the same mirror image as that found in nature. An article describing the synthesis was published in the Journal of the American Chemical Society last month. It was also featured on the blog
Jones graduated with a B.S. in Chemistry in 2006. He is currently working on a Ph. D. in Chemistry, which he plans to finish in 2011. Simmons also graduated with a B.S. in Chemistry and has already received an M.S. in Organic Chemistry from Princeton. He will complete his Ph.D. next spring.
Simmons’ education at BYU helped him realize he wanted to be a chemist.
“During my sophomore year I had it in my mind that I was going to be a dentist, and that required taking organic chemistry as a prerequisite.  Merritt Andrus was the instructor, and he just had a wonderful way of explaining reactions, how the chemical structures of molecules interacted, and their relation to biology. Almost from day one I was hooked.  I knew that dentistry was no longer my calling in life.”
Simmons and Jones both talked very highly of BYU and the experience they gained as undergraduates here.
“I have found that the undergraduate education in chemistry I received at BYU provided a thorough, well-balanced coverage of all disciplines of chemistry. In addition to providing a solid background in chemistry, I feel this enabled me to be able to make an informed decision about which area of chemistry interested me the most,” Jones said.
“Perhaps even equal to the preparation the coursework gave me was my experience with undergraduate research. I was able to work with Dr. Steven Castle for two years in the area of natural product synthesis. My post-undergraduate experience has shown me that the amount of one-on-one attention I received with Dr. Castle during my BYU research was far greater than I would have had if I pursued an undergraduate degree at any other university. At other schools, undergraduate interaction with a research adviser is far less frequent than at BYU, where weekly, if not daily, interaction with the adviser can be expected,” Jones added.
“The opportunities at BYU for undergraduates are world-class,” Simmons said.
Their advisor Dr. MacMillan has been very impressed with the work these two have accomplished.
"Spencer and Bryon did a remarkable job on the design and synthesis of an organic molecule that has an extremely complex structure.  Previously this molecule had been made very efficiently in 15 steps by a world famous researcher in California.  Bryon and Spencer, via a great level of creativity and determination, were able to design a pathway to this molecule that allowed its construction in only 9 steps.  
Dr. MacMillan was also quick to praise BYU and its chemistry program.
“When Spencer and Bryon arrived at Princeton they were trained at the highest level I have observed of any undergraduates moving to a graduate program,” Dr. MacMillan said. “Indeed, Professors Andrus and Castle should be recognized for what an amazing job they do with such fine young intellects.  Their efforts are a true reflection of the wonderful education and training that the BYU chemistry department provides and why every year I work so hard to bring more young BYUers to Princeton."
By Cory Renshaw