FINALIST PROJECT: Creating new aromatic compounds using silicon instead of carbon

WHAT LED TO THE PROJECT: Ronald Breslow grew up in Rahway, N.J.—home of the pharmaceutical company Merck. His physician father treated many Merck scientists. One of them, Max Tishler, who later won the National Medal of Science, gave Breslow a college organic chemistry textbook when the boy was in seventh grade. "That got me rolling," he says. He used to conduct experiments in the basement, trying to make interesting compounds with interesting properties. Because his father's office was attached to the house—and shared a heating system—this did not always work out well. When young Breslow started experimenting with aromatic compounds (a ring-shaped molecule; not all have an "aroma," though some do), trying to make them with silicon instead of carbon, at times "a tremendous smell would go through the air vents, and the patients would go streaming," he says. On the plus side, the results did win him a finalist spot in the 1948 Westinghouse Science Talent Search.

THE EFFECT ON HIS CAREER: The honor had two immediate effects: First, he became fast friends with the other young finalists, even biking through Europe one summer with one. And second, it convinced Breslow that "you are actually good enough at this that you want to take it seriously." He went to Harvard University for college and graduate school in chemistry, and then took a faculty position at Columbia University, where he continued to make interesting compounds with interesting properties.

Specifically, he looked at how we could "imitate what nature does, but do it for our purposes." After all, "a jet airplane is not a scaled-up pigeon, but it does take advantage of the idea of wings." He has used this idea to make advances in artificial enzymes, aromatic compounds, the understanding of vitamin B1, and various substances that can be tweaked to be more useful to people. The work at Columbia earned him the National Medal of Science in 1991 (four years, it turns out, after Tishler's).

WHAT HE'S DOING NOW: Breslow has been at Columbia for 50 years. Among his most interesting recent compounds is one that can actually cause certain kinds of cancer cells to behave normally again. In 2004 his old neighbor, Merck, bought a company he and colleagues had created to develop the drug, now called Zolinza. The FDA approved it for a variety of skin cancer in 2006.

Breslow has also been doing work trying to understand chirality—that is, the fact that many compounds come in "left-handed" or "right-handed" versions, and cannot be superimposed on their mirror image. He's particularly interested in how that property arose on early Earth.

Coming up with such questions is a big part of science, which gives him mixed feelings about the young people who now ask to work in his lab in order to come up with results that they can enter in competitions such as Westinghouse's progeny, the Intel Science Talent Search. They're looking for a professor to come up with the projects, instead of coming up with the questions themselves. "We actually had our own projects," he says. "The plus side of the new system is that it gets a lot of kids into research. The minus is that it removes the part we did that was most interesting: use our imaginations to dream up a project and figure out how to work it out."