A Giant in His Field

On Jan. 6, the St. Louis Nuclear Magnetic Resonance (NMR) Discussion Group (an American Chemical Society – sponsored group) hosted a symposium honoring Jacob Schaefer, the Charles Allen Thomas Professor of Chemistry. Scientists and researchers from across the globe, including many from our own Department of Chemistry, attended to celebrate Schaefer’s life and work, tracing his career and discussing future applications of the groundbreaking work he’s done over the last few decades. WashU faculty members Sophia Hayes, Alexander Barnes, Richard Loomis, and Gary Patti co-organized the symposium, held in conjunction with a special issue of the journal Solid State Nuclear Magnetic Resonance, spearheaded by Editor, Hellmut Eckert.

“Washington University has long been a leader in NMR methods development, and Jake Schaefer is one of the ‘giants’ in the field,” says Sophia Hayes, a professor of chemistry. “In solid-state NMR, there have been—what I would characterize—5 major revolutions in how such experiments are conducted. Two of those revolutions, the cross-polarization magic-angle spinning (CPMAS) technique and the rotational-echo double resonance (REDOR) method, are both from Jake Schaefer.”

Lee Sobotka, a professor of chemistry, explains the importance of these techniques: “Jacob Schaefer has done more than anyone else in the world to make NMR a powerful tool for the study of heterogeneous solids. All who take organic chemistry learn how NMR is used for the determination of the structure of molecules that exist in solution. This powerful technique only works because a particular interaction term (the so called 'dipolar coupling term') averages to zero if the molecules are tumbling in solution. If the molecules were not tumbling, as is the case in solids, this term does not average to zero, and the intrinsic NMR lines are too broad to be of value. Schaefer has both invented and refined techniques to recover averaging and, thus, enable NMR in the solid state to extract structural information. His inventions, CPMAS and REDOR are now tools used in hundreds of laboratories around the world.”

Schaefer’s research was highlighted in November 2015 in a special issue of the journal Solid State Nuclear Magnetic Resonance entitled “40 Years of CPMAS and 25 Years of REDOR” honoring Schaefer for his research contributions to solid state NMR spectroscopy. Many of the contributors to this publication came to the symposium, and all attendees were thrilled to celebrate their colleague. Of the 14 speakers at the event, Hayes says they all jumped at the chance to attend and present.

“The attendees at the symposium heard presentations describing some of the newest applications of Jake's techniques and their impact in medicine, biochemistry, and materials chemistry,” says Richard Loomis, an associate professor of chemistry. “The contributors did an outstanding job at putting their research into a historical perspective, especially tying their ongoing efforts with the techniques developed by Jake. The presenters also shared stories and anecdotes that conveyed how Jake's mentoring, training, and friendship also impacted their careers and personal lives.”

Gary Patti, an associate professor of chemistry and notably, a graduate student trained in Schaefer’s group, says that all widely acknowledge that solid-state NMR as we know it would not be here today without Jake’s innovations. “A theme of the presented talks was that Jake has been ahead of his time in thinking about both NMR technologies and biochemistry. Jake has taught the field not only how to perform solids NMR experiments, but also which biological questions the approach is uniquely positioned to answer. One speaker noted in particular that every time he thinks of what he believes to be a novel experiment, he discovers that Jake already did it in the 80's.”

The event broke down into three main sessions: metabolism, bio-related, and heterogenity. Hayes says the topics rose naturally from the speakers and hew closely to the directions of Schaefer’s own research.

Sobotka says, “First at Monsanto and after 1986 at WashU, Schaefer has applied his techniques to the study of synthetic polymers and proteins. The beauty of Schaefer’s program has always been: find an interesting problem and then a trackable way to attack it. The tools mentioned above were the response to this question-driven approach. His students and postdoctoral fellows all become infected with this approach: identify the problem then find (or invent if you must) the technique to solve it.”

“WashU has had a long history of magnetic resonance pioneers – George Pake, Sam Weissman, Richard (Dick) Norberg, Mark Conradi, Joe Ackerman, and Jake Schaefer,” says Hayes. “It is important that WashU maintains its leadership in this highly relevant field that contributes significantly to science and even to healthcare (as MRI technology). Those of us who represent the next generation of faculty (Alexander Barnes, Gary Patti, and I) were all drawn to WashU because of the strength of the program and colleagues we would gain.”

Hayes hoped the symposium would allow Schaefer “to reflect on how he has had such a positive and lasting effect on an entire community, both within WashU and outside. Also, people would collectively get to see how one person’s contribution really can change the (research) world.”

Patti sees Schaefer’s influence on the wider Academy and even within the department here at WashU. “It is extremely impressive to note that Jake has placed over 15 of his former group members into academic faculty positions, many of whom participated in the symposium. Among other symposium attendees were Jake’s colleagues from chemistry at WashU who pointed out Jake’s invaluable role in shaping the department over his time here. Jake played a defining and influential role in recruiting at least 5 of the department's faculty members. Some of these recruits similarly have research programs focusing on NMR. This has made WashU arguably the most premier institution in the world to conduct NMR research.”

Though Schaefer’s effects on the wider field of NMR are felt in laboratories across the globe, his colleagues here at WashU hope the symposium also highlighted his legacy and brilliance as a mentor and friend.

Loomis says, “Jake Schaefer is truly one of the founding fathers of modern solid-state NMR, but he’s not only committed to outstanding science, he has also takes his teaching and mentoring responsibilities very seriously. He has taken on the role of mentor to many of us in the chemistry department during those challenging years before, and even after tenure; he offers to read manuscripts or drafts of proposals, he spends significant time thoroughly learning the research efforts of junior faculty, and provides valuable advice on best routes on performing experiments.”

Sobotka adds, “While running his world famous solid-state NMR laboratory, Schaefer has contributed to all levels of instruction at WashU in his over 30 years of service. He has taught general chemistry, physical chemistry, and advanced graduate-level courses on NMR. His attention to education at all levels has been an inspirational example for other faculty, and overall he is one of the premiere examples at WashU of how to splice research and instruction.”