With the declining job market for chemists, a lot of people who were classically trained as organic chemists have been forced into other sectors of the economy in order to put food on the table. Evidence for the lack of employment opportunities is here: http://www.reddit.com/r/chemistry/comments/s1780/the_chemistry_job_market_is_brutal_just_ask_these/. For those who don’t read Reddit, this is a thread about the chemistry job market, including a video by ACS interviewing students about their estimated employment prospects (it’s not very encouraging). The fact that so many chemists are being displaced today makes one think that the field has matured to the point where synthesis is a trivial endeavor. But is that necessarily true?
Since the development of organic chemistry as a discipline in the 1800’s, chemists were concerned with the most fundamental of questions, “Can we make this type of bond?”. Later, this became “Can we make this type of structure?”, once the diversity of structures in natural products was discovered. Natural product total synthesis was kickstarted by Woodward’s (more on Woodward in a later post) synthesis of quinine in the 1940’s, and came to a grand culmination with Kishi’s synthesis of palytoxin in the 1990’s. The studies on natural product total synthesis enabled the synthesis of incredibly complex molecules to be approached in a rational manner, and also had the side benefit of the development of numerous novel reaction methodologies (e.g. E. J. Corey’s discovery of TBS protection, the development of the Nozaki-Hiyama-Kishi reaction, among others). Since that time, the field has matured some more, but the exponential breakthroughs of the 20th century have slowed down. There have still been some noteworthy developments, however, such as the development of the field of organocatalysis, and the recent explosion of interest in the chemical community in organofluorine chemistry.
In a recent Nature paper last year, Prof. Macmillan (now at Princeton) stated, “Organic chemists are now able to synthesize small quantities of almost any known natural product, given sufficient time, resources and effort”. This is very true; in my experience, there are very few boundaries left for organic chemists to tackle. Classical and modern synthetic methods allow the synthesis of almost any molecule conceivable; and new molecules and reactions are being discovered every day. In this sense, organic synthesis is no longer something difficult; it is no longer valuable to make molecules just for the sake of making molecules. What is lacking, however, is a complete understanding of how reactions work. While organic synthesis has plowed along, developments in physical organic chemistry have not been so rapid. Our understanding of reaction mechanisms, conformational analysis, and stereocontrol is still at a very basic level. Fundamental studies in these areas would greatly assist our ability to develop stereospecific reactions. Efforts to replace precious metals (such as Ru, Pd, Pt, Rh) with cheaper alternatives would also go a long way towards making chemistry sustainable for the future.
In my opinion, the future of organic synthesis no longer lies in simply making molecules; research into better understanding of reactions and catalysis is where its at.