SUU Alumnus Contributes to Nobel Prize Research

Published: January 06, 2022 | Author: Savannah Byers | Read Time: 4 minutes

SUU alumni Joseph CarpenterThe 2021 Nobel Prize for chemistry was recently announced, and Southern Utah University alumni Joseph (Joze) Carpenter was pleased to see a familiar face on that list- Professor David MacMillan. As a graduate student, Carpenter worked in Professor MacMillan’s research group, studying and conducting experiments to develop asymmetric organocatalysis, a new scientific phenomenon. The findings from this group led to the Nobel Prize Professor MacMillan was jointly awarded with Professor Benjamin List.

“Working in Professor MacMillan's lab was extremely demanding, but we were motivated by the fact that we knew the research we were working on had tremendous potential to make a major impact,”said Carpenter. “Asymmetric organocatalysis quickly became a competitive field and we knew that if we didn't work quickly to develop the methodology in this burgeoning area other research groups might beat us to key insights and discoveries.”

Carpenter applied to the California Institute of Technology for graduate school after earning a bachelor’s degree in chemistry from SUU in 2005. He visited Caltech’s campus in March of 2005, hoping to find something he would like to pursue.

“During my campus visit I had the opportunity to speak one on one with Professor MacMillan about his research,” said Carpenter. “I was blown away by recent results he and his research group were obtaining in the very new area of asymmetric organocatalysis. It was immediately something I wanted to be involved in, even though I knew nothing about asymmetric organocatalysis. This is now a moment in my life where I look back and realize that it completely changed my professional trajectory.”

Shortly after Carpenter was accepted both to the university and Professor MacMillan’s research group, Professor MacMillan announced that he was moving to New Jersey to teach and continue his research at Princeton University. He invited members of the research group to join him, but he understood if they couldn’t move 2,700 miles. Carpenter and his wife, Shannon, deliberated some, and they ultimately decided to uproot their family to follow Professor MacMillan to the east coast.

The work and time for the research group was demanding. The group was in the lab constantly- often over twelve hours a day. Carpenter’s research project and graduate thesis focused on applying asymmetric organocatalysis in the total synthesis of natural products. Working to synthetically recreate complex molecules that occur naturally in sea sponges in trace quantities, he utilized asymmetric organocatalysis to make molecules that could potentially be used as medicines. The work Carpenter completed as a student relates to his work today as a medicinal chemist.

Carpenter got his start in medicinal chemistry with Bristol-Myers Squibb in the areas of metabolic and fibrotic diseases. Today, Carpenter is a Senior Director of Chemistry with Recursion Pharmaceuticals, a digital biology company located in Salt Lake City, Utah. Digital biology integrates science with technology. Recursion utilizes artificial intelligence and complex machine learning algorithms, like those used in facial recognition software, along with high-content cellular imaging to map biological pathways of disease and identify potential therapies. His current team focuses in the areas of fibrotic disease, oncology, immunology & inflammation, and neuroscience.

“In my current work, my team and I now utilize asymmetric organocatalysis as one of many tools at our disposal to construct the molecules that we hope will someday lead to life-saving medicines,” said Carpenter.

Joseph Carpenter and Dr.David MacmillanCarpenter started at SUU as a nontraditional student, being married with a 9-month old daughter. He went back to school at age 21, earning his bachelor’s degree from SUU and his master’s and doctorate degrees in chemistry from Princeton University.

“I used to work as a manager for the Jiffy Lube in Cedar City, and I loved working on cars and getting my hands dirty working to understand how machines work,” said Carpenter. “The ultimate machine is the human body on a biological and chemical level. That’s what attracted me to chemistry.”

The research group is making a pilgrimage back to their alma mater to celebrate the Nobel Prize win with Professor MacMillan. Learn more about the group’s findings on the Nobel Prize website.

SUU offers four bachelor’s degrees in chemistry including a forensic emphasis, health care emphasis, professional emphasis, and teacher education emphasis. Students study and research in modern, fully-mediated wireless classrooms and laboratory facilities that are equipped with a full range of laboratory instruments. Dedicated faculty do everything they can to help their students succeed in whichever direction they choose to take.

Learn more about the Chemistry Programs at SUU.

Tags: Alumni Chemistry

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