Welch Award News Release

Robert G. Bergman

Organometallic pioneer honored with
2014 Welch Award
Bergman's research important to advances in green energy and medicine

BERKELEY, Calif., May 1, 2014 – Robert G. Bergman has made vital contributions to our understanding of organometallic chemistry and particularly carbon-hydrogen bond activation and its application to drug development and cleaner energy. Today the Houston-based Welch Foundation, one of the nation’s oldest and largest sources of private funding for basic research in chemistry, named the University of California at Berkeley professor as the 2014 recipient of the Welch Award in Chemical Research for his groundbreaking research.

The carbon-hydrogen bond is one of the two most common bonds in organic compounds. Many useful compounds, such as plastics, fuels and drugs, could be produced more efficiently if methods could be found to break this bond and carry out chemistry at the carbon atom to which the hydrogen was attached. However, the carbon-hydrogen bond is also one of the strongest, and so it has historically been difficult to break and replace the hydrogen attached to carbon with other, more reactive, atoms (so called “carbon-hydrogen bond functionalization”). Traditional organic chemistry approaches require a number of steps and the use of hazardous reagents, and the process results in low levels of materials and a large amount of waste. Dr. Bergman was one of the first investigators to find ways to use metal complexes to break strong carbon-hydrogen bonds, opening the way to addressing these problems.  Since that groundbreaking discovery, research has focused on understanding and improving this process, with Dr. Bergman’s research providing invaluable advances in this critical area.

“Dr. Bergman’s contributions to science have been far-reaching, leading to advances and insights in many areas of chemistry, including physical, organic, organometallic, inorganic, supramolecular, and catalysis,” said Wilhelmina E. (Beth) Robertson, chair of The Welch Foundation. “And beyond his broad and deep research impacts, he has been a leader in science advocacy as well as in teaching and nurturing future generations of scientists.”

Drawing from organic and inorganic chemistry, Dr. Bergman has focused on synthetic chemical research to discover new materials containing both metal and organic components. His target has been organometallic compounds that are catalysts for organic transformations or can be turned into catalysts. His goal has been to help build more complex molecules in a more efficient way that eliminates waste, such as to create a drug, or, more recently, to take large molecules and convert them into something more useful, such as a fuel.

In probably his most noted achievement, Dr. Bergman found what has been called the “Holy Grail” of the field of C-H bond activation by creating the first transition metal complex capable of breaking carbon-hydrogen bonds by inserting the metal in between the carbon and hydrogen atoms. This works even for simple compounds such as alkanes, which contain only carbon-carbon and carbon-hydrogen bonds and are significant components of petroleum and natural gas. He then further studied the fundamentals of this class of reactions and applied his findings to problems in organic synthesis.

In another important early breakthrough, Dr. Bergman studied enediynes, a class of bacterial natural products, and discovered a transformation, called the “Bergman cyclization,” that was later identified as a first step in a process that damages DNA in tumors. Thanks to this insight, today hundreds of synthetic enediyne compounds are being tested as cancer drugs.

“Bob Bergman is a trail-blazing researcher whose interdisciplinary and collaborative approach to science has led to significant contributions to chemistry throughout his career,” said Marye Anne Fox, chair of the Foundation’s Scientific Advisory Board. “He was a pioneer in taking the methods and reasoning of physical organic chemistry and using them to help grow the new field of organometallic chemistry, where mechanistic insights were not always obvious until revealed by his work. His work has revolutionized the field of C-H activation, one of the most important in chemistry, and he continues to expand our insights in this area, providing the foundation of organometallic chemistry as we know it today.” 

In later research, he has explored organometallic chemistry in larger molecular structures, and is currently working in “green chemistry,” specifically targeting the synthesis of metal complexes that remove oxygen groups from natural sources such as sugars and lignin, converting them to higher energy products that can be used as fuels and specialty chemicals. Within the past few years, Dr. Bergman has established new collaborations that have resulted in catalytic C-H bond activation methods with broad impact in synthetic organic and medicinal chemistry. More recently, he has made major advances in the construction of self-assembled nano-sized molecular cages.

”I have found much joy in science, both in advancing fundamental human knowledge, and in the training of future scientists and informed citizens,” said Dr. Bergman. “Collaborations have been critical to my success – science today is so far-reaching that none of us can hope to master an area alone – and I’ve loved applying this in my teaching, both at the undergraduate level and with my research group. I’m very proud of the 220 or so students I’ve mentored and they are continually surprising me with their discoveries and contributions to the next generation of science.”

Growing up in Chicago, Dr. Bergman attended Carleton College where he edited the college newspaper and considered being a journalist before finally settling on chemistry as a career. He earned a doctorate in chemistry from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and was a North Atlantic Treaty Organization fellow at Columbia University. He spent 10 years on the faculty of California Institute of Technology before moving to the University of California at Berkeley where he is now the Gerald E. K. Branch Distinguished Professor. The author of more than 500 papers, he has been recognized with numerous American Chemistry Society awards as well as the E. O. Lawrence Award in Chemistry from the U.S. Department of Energy and teaching excellence awards from both Caltech and Berkeley. He has served in many academic and research leadership roles, on editorial advisory boards and recently began a primary school outreach program with graduate students at Berkeley.

Dr. Bergman and his wife Wendy have two sons, David and Mike, and two grandchildren.

The Welch Foundation advances science through research and departmental grants, funding of endowed chairs, an annual chemical conference and support for other chemistry-related programs. In addition to the Welch Award, the Foundation annually bestows the Norman Hackerman Award in Chemical Research to recognize the accomplishments of chemical scientists in Texas who are early in their research careers. Since its founding in 1954, Welch has contributed more than $772 million as part of its mission to support the basic chemical research that improves life.

For more information on the Foundation and a list of previous Welch Award recipients, please visit www.welch1.org.

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