Big Leaps, Happy Accidents

As an undergraduate, Robert Grubbs started out as an agricultural chemistry major. But when a friend invited him to help out in an organic chemistry lab, his research path—and his life—changed. Finding his passion in organic chemistry as a young scientist led Grubbs to a fruitful career at Caltech, one that earned him a Nobel Prize in 2005.

Today, exposing undergraduate students to different kinds of research is a cause Grubbs cares about deeply. As the Victor and Elizabeth Atkins Professor of Chemistry at Caltech, he intentionally welcomes undergraduates into his laboratory during the pivotal years when they begin to imagine their futures in science. Working in his lab and taking advantage of opportunities such as Caltech’s Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowships program give students hands-on experience and early mentorship that help shape the research practices and decision-making skills they will use for life.

“I try really hard to make sure undergraduates have a chance to understand what chemistry is about so they have the opportunity to try it and realize what they like to do,” Grubbs says. “If it doesn’t work out, then they get to try something else before making big decisions.”

One of the reasons Grubbs cherishes working with Caltech undergraduates is their ability to learn quickly. Groundbreaking research means embracing the unexpected, not pursuing easy answers. It means being able to recognize when the science is taking you in a different direction, occasionally resulting in big breakthroughs.

“The key to college is identifying what you want to do and being able to focus on that.”
- Robert Grubbs

“We go for problems where there are no obvious solutions—half the time when we’re trying to solve one problem, we end up solving another one,” Grubbs says. “Caltech has really smart and focused students who are eager to learn how to spot these happy accidents.”

One such problem-solving journey resulted in his own Nobel Prize–winning “Grubbs catalyst,” which opened up a new era of easily managed chemical processes—dramatically shrinking the time and cost of developing therapeutic drugs. It has made a difference for people suffering from hepatitis C and cancer patients going through chemotherapy.

Today, as he uses chemistry to create solutions for medical challenges such as cataracts and urinary stones, it’s hard to imagine where Grubbs’s path would have taken him were it not for that serendipitous moment when he was an undergraduate.

“The key to college is identifying what you want to do and being able to focus on that,” Grubbs says. “And it’s a real strength of Caltech.”

Giving Priorities