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3. The Eiffel Tower Of Synthesis | Phil Baran

November 22, 2017 6 a.m.

Can molecules from San Diego's coast be tomorrow's cancer medicine? That's what Philip Baran is trying to figure out. He hopes to synthesize life-saving molecules mother nature has been producing for eons.

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Related Story: Rad Scientist Ep. 3: The Eiffel Tower Of Synthesis | Phil Baran


This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

[Cinema Junkie Promo]

Margot: San Diego is one of the largest scientific research hubs in the country. So, who are the intrepid scientists in search of discovery, pushing the frontiers of human knowledge? This is Rad Scientist, where the scientist becomes the subject. I'm your host, Margot Wohl. Today’s Rad Scientist, Philip Baran is a McArthur Genius recipient and has been dubbed the Sultan of Synthesis and the Magician of Molecules. But he’s not a big fan of those names.

Philip: Certainly I'm not that. I would say the best descriptor is Phil was born in New Jersey, he likes to do chemistry, and he's currently at Scripps, and he's the guy that doesn't leave from that lab. I come to work in a t shirt and jeans and a baseball cap.

Margot: He may dress casually but this guy is serious about his chemistry. Phil, was hooked from the beginning.

Philip: Oh, the first time I just did a reaction, I was like ... you get shivers down your spine and it was kind of like .. It was just like the most exhilarating thing because you had the ... If you're a chemist, organic chemist, doing synthesis, you have God like powers. Now think about it, you're creating. For me it was just a thought like, "Okay, how do you minimize sleep and all other things to maximize the time doing that?"

Margot: Phil was so excited about his work that some nights, he’d sleep in the lab. Things are a little different now.

Philip: Before I had a family it was like you know, I could give you like, "Okay, I'm not here between one and seven in the morning. It's not doable. And I wouldn't want to do that, I want to see my kids grow up otherwise, what's the point of having them.

Across from his desk is a floor to ceiling whiteboard that he shares with his three young daughters. The bottom half is an artistic canvas, but above their reach, it’s all organic chemistry.

Philip: Those are not scientific drawings so, that's actually, that wall is kind of, a gradient of seriousness. It starts off really like, the little one down there is scribbling, and then the drawings become more coherent: a Santa Claus, there's a turkey from Thanksgiving time, I don't even know what's there oh, some sort of bear- and then finally, when you've exceeded their height, it becomes science.

[Music Break]

Margot: Phil’s a dad and also an organic chemist -- but not the kind of organic you’re probably thinking of.

Philip: Well, organic just refers to the study of molecules that are made of up things like carbon, oxygen, nitrogen, it's not to be confused with the term people use for fruit with no pesticides. Our lifespan has gotten a lot longer as a consequence of organic chemistry. Thousands of FDA approved medicines, and those came from chemists.

Margot: And about 75% of these medicines come from natural sources, like tree bark or bacteria. And that’s where organic chemists like Phil come in. They figure out ways to make lots of that natural product for cheap, instead of pilfering from nature. One of the first natural products to be made synthetically is something your liver is making right now.

Philip: I think it was in the 1800's that they made urea, and that was a big freaking deal, because it showed like wow, urea is made by animals, and we humans could make that same thing.

Margot: Urea. A compound found in -- you guessed it -- urine. For the first tim e, chemists were able to make an organic molecule -- which our bodies make naturally -- in the lab. Since then, chemists have been trying to make lots of molecules that nature has been making for eons. And that can be really hard. Phil remembers the time when h e watched his colleagues trying to recreate an antibiotic normally found in soil.

Philip: They had basically just enough for the micro, micro amount to detect it, you couldn't even see it. It was not visible to the eye. And then the way they compared it was they had this enormous, looked like a pickle jar, full of this white powder. I asked the post doc, "Well what is that?" They're like, "That's the authentic material." Nature was making so much of this compound, yet humans could barely, with a team of 20 people, make not even enough for a naked eye to see and that struck me.

Margot: So that became Phil’s mission - solving hard problems in organic chemistry.

Philip: if a natural product can be made in nature in metric ton scale and in the past, human's attempt to make it has required hundreds and hundreds of years of equivalent effort only to procure what is an infinitesimal amount of final product. You have to ask yourself, "What fundamentally, is the difference between trying to bridge that gap and trying to colonize another planet?" That's our Mars mission.

Margot: Even though he compares his work to space exploration, Phil hopes to find the medicines of tomorrow in his own backyard: San Diego.

[ambient sounds from ocean/beach]
Margot: The ocean.

Philip: There's a good reason why you want to go to the ocean to look for natural products, so the first is that marine natural products have the benefit of being under extreme selection pressure for billions of years with constant interaction. So, everything is in solution so, unlike a tree, which a tree might be in El Cajon may never speak to a tree in Carmel Valley, but in the ocean those trees are going to be talking. If everything is submersed, they're going to be talking. So, there's a fight over resources, there's a fight for territory and there's a defense that needs to take place. So, all those little organisms; cyanobacteria, tunicates, sponges, all of them are in a constant fight for survival and therefore, lots of evolution is going on.

Margot: So marine organisms are making compounds to communicate, to fight. And they’re likely to be bioactive meaning they could be a potential medicine. And this isn’t just a pipe dream for Phil . A few years ago, he co-founded a local startup called Sirenas Marine Discovery to catalog molecules found in the ocean and understand whether they could be used in human medicine. He says these compounds might even be better than the ones we find on land.

Phillip: If everything is dissolved in the ocean and the drug you want to make presumably, you'd like it to dissolve in a stomach and then in the bloodstream, aqueous environment. It stands to reason that those compounds arising from a saline environment, might have better physical chemical properties than ones coming from tree bark.

[Music Break]
Margot: So he’s mining the oceans, the most abundant resource on earth.

Philip:[add eiffel tower back in] At the end of the day, I think all chemists secretly, are just alchemists. All they want to do is convert iron into gold. We're guilty of it too. I'm still looking for a way to convert iron into gold.

Margot: And even though technology is progressing in leaps and bounds, Philip says organic chemistry is one field that needs human brainpower to keep moving forward.

Philip: There will still be a need for talented, passionate chemists who like art and exploring space, but are not very artistic and afraid of leaving gravity.

Margot: Is that you?

Philip: Yes

Margot: And maybe that’s what makes Philip so successful. He sees chemistry as his way to be creative, his way to explore the unknown, and in the process, he may make one small step or maybe one giant leap for mankind.

Margot: That’s the end of this episode of Rad Scientist which brings us to the “Moment of Xenopus”, “An Ode to Molecules”

Philip: I love the way they smell, I love the way they look, I love their idiosyncratic reactivity, I love the fact that I don't have a favorite molecule.

Margot: Rad scientist was produced and edited by me, Margot. With original scores and editing help by Grant Fisher. Logo is by Kyle Fisher , no relation. This podcast is supported by the KPBS Explore Project, bringing local content to the radio. This episode was produced by me, Margot Wohl. Grant Fisher is our audio mix master and theme song composer. Shahla Farzan is script editor. Logo by Kyle Fisher. At KPBS, Emily Jankowski is technical director, Melanie Drogseth is program coordinator, Jill Linder is programming manager, Nate John is innovation specialist, and John Decker is director of programming. Additional music was by Stuntman, Lymphoid, Kodak, Podington Bear, and Goran Andrić. Hey, do you know a rad scientist? If so, email me at And you can also check me out on twitter @radscientistpod. Until next episode, stay rad.