Ullyot Delight

For the past 20 years the Chemical Heritage Foundation’s Ullyot Public Affairs Lecture has brought people of the highest distinction to Philadelphia for an evening of lively discussion. Academics, CEOs, government officials, university presidents, and others have all offered their perspectives on the chemical sciences’ contributions to society.

This year’s honoree was Dr. Joseph M. DeSimone of the University of North Carolina, and he held the rapt attention of a capacity crowd throughout the occasion. A renowned materials scientist, Professor DeSimone began with the beguiling, even if mildly intimidating, title “Bridging Fields and Harnessing Diversity for the Sake of Innovation.”

Title aside, the start was auspicious, with the good doctor expounding persuasively on the power of cultural and intellectual diversity to provoke scientific innovation. But then he asked, should we abandon the meritocracy on which science has been so successfully built?

The answer is no: merit matters. But so does diversity, and a colorful photo of the 40-person-strong and highly productive North Carolina research group drove home the point.

The attendees were then treated to a breathtaking array of recent discoveries from the DeSimone lab, all deftly communicated to the audience of (mostly) non-specialists. If heart disease worries you, you would have liked the invention of a polymeric stent that delivers anti-inflammatory drugs, slowly degrades and exits the body, and leaves the formerly diseased heart returned to normalcy.

If hard to treat and very deadly pancreatic tumors cause you to fret, you would be impressed with the endoscopic delivery of a device containing a therapeutic agent right to the center of the tumor lacking in blood vessels, and then electrophoresing out the drug that kills the cancer but not surrounding normal tissue.

And if the global shortage of H1N1 vaccine is a source of anxiety, you’ll be relieved to know that Professor DeSimone’s group is working on a polymeric particle-based delivery system that is sixty times more effective than the normal route for delivering vaccine. This means we’d need to produce sixty times less to vaccinate the same number of people. Voila, shortage averted (but, alas, not in time for this year’s flu season).

Next year’s Ullyot lecture will be equally inspiring, so check the CHF Web site next fall to get in on the fun. It’s definitely worth a trip to the big city.

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Periodic Tabloid is an ongoing record of the activities of the Chemical Heritage Foundation’s staff and scholars, whose work tells the story of chemistry over the centuries up to modern times. Stay tuned for behind-the-scenes coverage of our events, exclusive supplemental materials to our publications, analysis of pressing contemporary scientific issues, and much more.