NYU Alumni 

alumni profile

Science Nonfiction

Phil Baran / CAS ’97

by Julie Vadnal

It’s easy to be gobsmacked by organic chemist Phil Baran’s CV. Not only does he conduct research in a lab named after him
(at the Scripps Research Institute in La Jolla, California), but in September, Baran was awarded a MacArthur Fellowship, which entails a $625,000 prize and the right to call oneself a capital-g Genius.
“Genius” Phil Baran will use his award to create new medicines and agrochemicals.

So, what is the 36-year-old’s niche? “Organic synthesis,” he says. To our quizzical silence he responds, “The science of making molecules. It’s kind of like being an architect, but on a molecular level.” Or to use a pop culture analogy, “It’s very much like Star Trek—a voyage into the unknown—but instead of meeting Klingons, our discoveries can have a tangible, positive impact in human medicine.” The money will bankroll Baran’s efforts to create medicines and agrochemicals that fall into a funding catch-22: They’re not financed without proof of efficacy, which of course requires capital.

Jersey-born and Florida-raised, Baran had a childhood passion for science, which became a full-blown obsession on Washington Place. “When I close my eyes I can still smell the characteristic odor of [professor] Dave Schuster’s lab in the chemistry building,” he says. “Schuster really took me under his wing. He not only taught me chemistry and let me explore, but he also taught me about life. Sometimes I still have dreams of being back there!”

While Baran was a virtuoso of his core curriculum, he was a bit off-key when it came to electives. “I did very poorly—a C, I think—in the Art of Listening,” Baran recalls. “These were the days before the iPod, so studying meant going to the basement of the library and listening to hours of classical music. I couldn’t sacrifice time in the lab, so I didn’t study much,” Baran says. But as chemistry proves, stasis is futile. “Now I only listen to classical music and even lecture with it playing in the background,” Baran says. “I think I’d get an A if I retook that test today.”

Photo Courtesy The John D. & Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation