ACS & You

Carolyn Bertozzi’ s Winding Road to an Extraordinary Career

Carolyn Bertozzi
Carolyn Bertozzi

Carolyn Bertozzi, Anne T. and Robert M. Bass Professor of Chemistry in the School of Humanities and Sciences at Stanford University, is at the top of her field. A pioneer in the field of bioorthogonal chemistry and investigator of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, she has earned many distinctions, including being one of the younger scientists to receive a MacArthur “Genius” award. Her current research focuses on changes in cell surface glycosylation related to cancer, inflammation, and bacterial infection.

Even with an outstanding record of accomplishments, Bertozzi will be the first to admit that her early career in chemistry was less than remarkable. In fact, it seemed to be going nowhere in the face of a series of failures and dead ends. “I’ve encountered my share of lemons in my career,” she says with a laugh, “but I’ve also figured out how to make a lot of lemonade.”

On April 3, Bertozzi will share her inspiring story of perseverance and how it has defined her career during the Undergraduate Program at the 253rd ACS National Meeting in San Francisco. 

Looking for a shot

Bertozzi started out as a pre-med major at Harvard University with no special interest in chemistry. But the organic chemistry course she took in her sophomore year steered her in a new direction. Realizing she had a knack for chemistry, Bertozzi changed her major. That summer, however, she hit her first brick wall when she couldn’t find any research opportunities.  Bertozzi was convinced she’d be waiting tables. Then one fateful day after her physical organic chemistry class, her professor, Joe Grabowski, asked whether she might be interested in working in his P-chem lab over the summer. “I had no idea what his research involved,” she recalls, “but I thought to myself, ‘At least he’s a chemist’ — so I just said yes.”

It was a challenge because the research required building, programming, and experimenting with a photoacoustic calorimeter using traditional drafting tools (this was long before the advent of readily available personal computers and computer-assisted drafting programs). Bertozzi found herself building a specialized scientific instrument — from scratch! She also had to write the instrument’s software using a little-known programming language called Forth.

Finding her own way

Each day throughout that summer, Bertozzi would read a little from the only two resources she was given --a thesis about a similar project and a Forth manual-- work on a small section of the code, order parts and materials, and learn as she went. She began writing fairly basic routines, embedding each into successively larger routines. “I called my first program ‘Dot,’” she recalls, “because it made a single pixel light up on the monitor.”

Eventually, Bertozzi’s programming allowed the photoacoustic calorimeter’s custom-built microphone and piezoelectric material to measure minute sonic waves from molecules in a solution, and then digitize them to plot curves for analysis. The work became her senior thesis.

Grabowski then suggested that she look into a summer internship at the now-legendary Bell Labs in New Jersey working with Chris Chidsey, a physical chemist. “I had another fortunate break when he explained his team’s need for better software, and asked if I’d be open to programming in Forth — which happened to be the one programming language I knew.”

After that summer stint, Bertozzi joined the graduate program at the University of California, Berkeley. There, she was finally was able to engage in research in organic chemistry, carbohydrate synthesis to be exact, then later rounded her experience in biology with a postdoctoral position at UCSF, the medical school across the Bay.

Bertozzi kept in touch with her former Bell Labs boss, Chidsey, who several years later accepted a faculty position at Stanford. Chidsey informed her that Stanford was searching for a new faculty member in chemical biology, and encouraged Bertozzi to apply. She did just that, and although she accepted a faculty position at UC Berkeley, 20 years later she moved to Stanford and now works alongside Chidsey as a colleague. “I never would have met Chris if I hadn’t worked in the P-chem lab,” Bertozzi reflects, “and that never would have happened if any of the organic chemistry faculty I’d approached had given me a shot in their labs.”

Reflecting on the path

“Looking back, it would have helped a lot if someone had told me long ago that there were actually many paths I could follow to find happiness and success,” Bertozzi observes. “Whether you’re satisfied with your career or you’re feeling ‘stuck,’ it’s smart to keep an eye out for opportunities. Over the years, I’ve become pretty good at sensing when something is an opportunity … even when it’s something I never thought I would want to do.”

Eminent Scientist Lecture

Dr. Carloyn Bertozzi will give the Eminent Scientist Lecture during the Undergraduate Program at the 253rd ACS National Meeting.

“What Life and Research Share in Common: Finding Opportunity in Failure”
Monday, April 3, 2017, 2:30-4 PM
Golden Gate Ballroom, San Francisco Marriott Marquis