The Bioactives Builder
Organic chemist is finding new synthetic routes to Mother Nature’s molecules
Hosea M. Nelson never planned on becoming a scientist. In fact, he was on his way to becoming a sheet metal worker when a particularly unpleasant foreman made him realize he’d be happiest as his own boss. He quit and enrolled in community college, with vague aspirations of going into psychology. One chemistry class later, his fate was sealed.
That independent streak made Nelson an early standout in graduate school at California Institute of Technology. After joining Brian Stoltz’s lab there, Nelson completed the total synthesis of a class of medicinally relevant molecules derived from Thapsia, a plant more commonly known as the “deadly carrot.” Although most students take a few years to fully take charge of their research projects, Nelson jumped headlong into his thesis, impressing Stoltz with his creativity. “I loved talking chemistry with him. He would show me what he wanted to do, and I would just help him do it,” Stoltz says. “He clearly had a plan from the beginning.”
Earlier this month, Nelson finally became his own boss. The doors to his labs at the University of California, Los Angeles, opened on July 1. And he’s got big ideas about the kind of science his research group will do.
Ultimately, he wants to combine multiple types of chemistry to mimic what nature does best: make complex, bioactive molecules. One day, Nelson imagines, “you could just have a flask filled with starting materials and then design, computationally, some set of catalysts to push it toward a product.”
A lofty goal, but one he seems fully capable of realizing. “I think he’s going to set the world on fire,” Stoltz says. -Lisa M. Jarvis
Research At A Glance
The medicinal properties of plants from the genus Thapsia, more commonly known as the “deadly carrot” (shown), have been known for centuries. As a grad student at Caltech, Nelson worked out an elegant five-step synthesis of the transtaganolides, a family of compounds isolated from Thapsia. The natural products could be useful in treating malaria, African sleeping sickness, and certain cancers.