Rick Danheiser New Faculty Chair
Rick L. Danheiser, A. C. Cope Professor of Chemistry, will succeed Susan Silbey as Chair of the Faculty on July 1, 2019. Rick has been Chair-elect during the current academic year and has served as the Associate Chair of the Faculty for the past two years. This is the first time in several decades that an Associate Chair has been elected to serve as the next Chair of the Faculty. Joining Rick as faculty officers this summer will be Duane Boning (EECS) as Associate Chair and David Singer (Political Science) as the Secretary of the Faculty. Rick believes that maintaining the high standard of inspiring and exemplary leadership set by the prior two chairs, Krishna Rajogopal and Susan Silbey, will be no easy task, but he promises to do his best.
Rick grew up in the suburbs of New York and Los Angeles and attended Columbia as an undergraduate, initially majoring in astrophysics. By the time of his junior year, however, Rick had come to realize that his fascination with the wonders of the heavens might be better satisfied as an amateur rather than professional astronomer, and he began to cast about for an alternative major.
Chemistry, with its colored crystals, gleaming glassware, and fuming liquids had always excited his interest, and encouraged by an inspiring general chemistry class (taught by Steve Lippard, then a Columbia professor), Rick switched fields, cramming the chemistry major requirements into his final two years. During his senior year Rick also found time to undertake research in organic chemistry in the laboratory of the late Gilbert Stork, successfully completing a total synthesis of the natural product beta-vetivone and developing his first “name reaction”, the “Stork-Danheiser alkylation” while still an undergraduate.
Rick received his PhD in 1978 at Harvard, where he completed the first synthesis of gibberellic acid working in the laboratory of Nobel laureate E. J. Corey (MIT SB 1948, PhD 1951). Rick joined the MIT faculty at age 25 as an Assistant Professor in the Department of Chemistry and rose through the ranks becoming the Arthur C. Cope Professor in 2000. Rick served two terms as Associate Head of Chemistry (1995-2000 and 2000-2005) and also was Acting Head of Chemistry in 1997.
Rick is a synthetic organic chemist. His research is concerned with the invention of new methods for the construction of complex molecules and the application of these methods in the chemical synthesis of organic compounds, especially biologically active natural products but also including molecules with interesting electronic properties. The synthetic methods developed in his laboratory include two “name reactions,” the “Danheiser Benzannulation,” and the “Danheiser Cyclopentene Annulation.” Natural products synthesized in his laboratory at MIT include the neurotoxic alkaloids anatoxin a and quinolizidine 217A, the immunosuppressant agent mycophenolic acid, the host defense stimulant maesanin, the antitumor agent ascochlorin, and a number of diterpene quinones derived from the Chinese traditional medicine Dan Shen. “Green chemistry” has been another area of interest in his laboratory, and for many years he collaborated with Jefferson Tester in Chemical Engineering investigating environmentally friendly methods for organic synthesis using water and supercritical carbon dioxide as reaction media.
In addition to having served on various journal advisory boards and having edited volumes of several important reference works, Rick has been Editor in Chief of Organic Syntheses since 2004. Organic Syntheses is a unique journal in which every experimental result must be reproduced in the laboratory of a member of the Board of Editors prior to publication. As an outgrowth of his role at Organic Syntheses, Rick has become an advocate for increased reproducibility in the chemical sciences, writing articles on the subject and presenting invited lectures at conferences and universities in the U.S. and abroad.
Rick is passionate about teaching. His educational contributions at MIT have been recognized with the Graduate Student Council Teaching Award (1989) a MacVicar Faculty Fellowship (1996), the School of Science Prize for Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching (1998), and the School of Science Prize for Graduate Education (2014).
Over the years Rick has taught a number of chemistry lecture and laboratory subjects, most recently graduate-level organic synthesis and the spring version of Chemistry 5.12, the introductory organic chemistry class taken by 100-250 students, including mostly freshmen. As Associate Department Head of Chemistry in 1995-2005, Rick’s responsibilities included directing both the undergraduate and graduate programs in the department. His accomplishments during this time included the development of the IAP “bootcamp” Freshman lab 5.301, the creation of the Digital Techniques Manual, and the design of the “URIECA” modular laboratory curriculum. Rick has also supervised the PhD theses of 58 graduate students (so far!) in addition to mentoring close to 100 postdocs and UROP students.
Rick served on a number of Institute committees prior to becoming Associate Chair of the Faculty. These include the Committee on the Science Requirements (1989-91) which ushered in the biology GIR and replaced the science distribution requirement with REST, the Committee on the First Year Program (1997-1998), the Education Design Project (1998-99) whose report led to the creation of Terrascope, CUP (1998-2001), the FPC (2005-2008), SOCR (2009-2010), and the Task Force on the Future of MIT Education (2012-2014). Rick has been heavily involved in laboratory safety at both the Institute and National levels. He has been Chair of the Chemistry Department Committee on Environmental Health and Safety, and the Chair of the Institute Committee on Toxic Chemicals since 1989. Rick has also served as a member of the Institute Council on EHS since 1989 and played a pivotal role in the development of the current MIT EHS management system.
Rick’s interests outside of science include photography, Japanese art and culture, jazz and classical music. He collects Japanese woodblock prints, watches, and fountain pens. Rick enjoyed playing baseball in his younger days, and his softball team (“Toxic Waste”) won the MIT Community Summer League championship three summers in a row (2004-2006), at which point Rick decided it was a good time to hang up his cleats and glove. Rick’s favorite sports teams are the Sox and Pats, his favorite single malt is Highland Park 18, and his favorite place to vacation is the Big Island of Hawaii.