Top Harvard Chemist Is Leaving, MIT Chair Says

Jacobsen, here since '93, denies he's made a final decision

Eric N. Jacobsen, a leading chemistry professor, is leaving Harvard for MIT, according to the head of MIT's chemistry department.

Timothy M. Swager, the department head, said on Saturday that Jacobsen formally accepted MIT's offer on Oct. 10 and will be leaving Harvard at the end of the academic year to become the Firmenich professor of chemistry at MIT. Jacobsen, however, told The Crimson in an e-mail that he had yet to make a final decision on where he would work next year. He declined to comment further.

If Jacobsen does move down Mass. Ave to MIT, he will join what Swager called the institute's "dream team" of reaction development researchers.

"We have quite a team and now we have Eric Jacobsen, so we really have in reaction development a team of people unparalleled in the history of chemistry, in my view," Swager said in an interview. The team now includes organic chemists Stephen L. Buchwald, Gregory C. Fu, Rick L. Danheiser, Timothy F. Jamison, and Mohammad Movassaghi, and inorganic chemists Richard R. Schrock, Christopher C. Cummins, and Jonas Peters.

Jacobsen, 47, came to Harvard as a professor in 1993. In addition to teaching the introductory organic chemistry course Chemistry 17 for many years, he has become a prominent voice in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences. Jacobsen was one of 13 professors on the faculty advisory committee to the presidential search last year and one of the three professors who drafted the general education legislation that the Faculty approved last spring. He also currently sits on the 18-member governing board of the FAS, the Faculty Council.

Swager said that Jacobsen will be a major contributor to a new research center at MIT, the MIT-Novartis Center for Continuous Manufacturing, which is being funded by $65 million from Novartis Pharmaceuticals, a health care products company.

Calling the center "the first of its kind," Swager said he believed the MIT-Novartis Center would be "transformational in how people look at synthetic chemistry."

"It will almost be like an assembly line to create pharmaceuticals," he said. "It's a very challenging goal and will require new ways of looking at synthetic chemistry. Eric is going to be one of the central figures."

Swager said that Jacobsen has had a "long-term relationship" with MIT.

"Eric's a chemist our department has been interested in for years, as any other department in the country has," Swager said. "Eric and many of the members of our faculty have been close friends for years."

Although Jacobsen's departure would be a loss for Harvard, Swager said that MIT and Harvard's chemistry departments are on very good terms and that collaboration would continue between these two giants in the science world.

"He's been a wonderful teacher at Harvard," Swager said of Jacobsen. "I feel bad about Harvard's loss, but I think our two departments have a lot of friendships between them. Our departments will continue to have great scholarly exchanges over the years."

Joyce C. Chang '08, a biochemical sciences concentrator in Leverett House who took Chemistry 17 with Jacobsen, said that a graduate student who works in Jacobsen's lab told her at the beginning of October that the professor was heading to MIT.

"I'm pretty upset about him leaving," Chang said. "I have the impression [Harvard's chemistry department] is a very strong research group because of the Jacobsen lab. It would be like half the chemistry department left if he left."

Chang praised Jacobsen's abilities as a professor. "I think he's a wonderful teacher," she said. "He has a lot of energy.... He brought me back to chemistry."

Several chemistry graduate students and professors contacted for this article, including department chair Andrew G. Myers, declined to comment.

—Staff writer Angela A. Sun can be reached at asun@fas.harvard.edu.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article named Anthony R. Shaw Jr. as the chair of the chemistry department. In fact, he is director of laboratories for the department.