Yamamoto scores award hat trick

By Connie Hsiung

This summer, Hisashi Yamamoto, the Arthur Holly Compton Distinguished Professor of the U of C’s chemistry department, will receive three prestigious awards from three separate continents: the 2007 Japan Academy Prize, the 2006 Tetrahedron Prize from North America, and the 2007 Humboldt Research Award from Europe.

The Japan Academy Prize has been presented annually since 1911 to nine scholars and scientists who have reached high levels of achievements in all fields of the humanities and the sciences. The Tetrahedron Prize for Creativity in Organic Chemistry was established in 1980 and is awarded annually to a chemist. The Humboldt Research Award is presented by the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation in Germany and honors the research of up to 100 scientists and scholars from abroad.

In addition to the honors, a considerable sum of money is attached to these awards. The Japan Academy Prize awards 1 million yen; the Tetrahedron, 10,000 U.S. dollars; and the Humboldt, 60,000 euros. All told, the sums amount to nearly one million U.S. dollars.

Yamamoto is a synthetic chemist who designs molecules in order to achieve specific reactions, with a particular focus on acid catalysis. Much of his career has been dedicated to the isolation of what are called Lewis acids in various compounds, which have since been widely used in organic synthesis. These specially designed molecules have peaked interest in numerous fields, including considerable attention from the pharmaceutical industry.

Yamamoto conducts his research at the University, aided by 16 chemists, called the Yamamoto group. The group consists of two undergraduate students, 12 graduate students, and two postdoctoral fellows.

Synthetic chemistry is a relatively new science; according to Yamamoto, it began 30 years ago, and “very few people” were interested in his work. In an e-mail interview, he said that despite all the work he and others have already achieved in the field, he is sure that the “golden ages are yet to be experienced.”

Yamamoto said he felt “quite honored” to receive these awards and also excited to be explaining his research to not only the Emperor and Empress of Japan at the Japan Academy Prize award ceremony in Tokyo but also to those at the Tetrahedron Prize ceremony symposium in Boston.