Larry Overman dreams of new molecular arrangements at night, and then by day he and his students bring them to life in his UC Irvine laboratory. The shelves of his Reines Hall office are topped with three-dimensional models of the delicate, multicolored atomic structures that are fundamental organic chemistry at its best.
“New molecules are being born in my lab every few hours; we give birth to them,” says the Distinguished Professor of chemistry, explaining that there are billions of possible combinations of atoms that could lead to lifesaving drugs or other products.
But that isn’t his favorite part of his job: “It’s the bright young students I get to work with year after year, teaching them science,” says Overman, one of four 2011 winners of the UCI Medal, the highest honor the university bestows. He and fellow awardees will be feted Saturday, Oct. 29, at “A Celebration of Stars” at the Bren Events Center.
“I’m delighted,” Overman says. “I like to think I’ve played a significant role in building a stronger department and school.”
In fact, UCI’s chemistry department has consistently been ranked among the nation’s best, and colleagues say that’s in no small measure due to the tall, soft-spoken Chicago native who arrived on campus in 1971, when cows still grazed in what is now the School of Physical Sciences parking lot.
“Larry Overman is extra-special because he started here as an assistant professor and became a key player by having the chemistry department establish world-class nuclear magnetic resonance and mass spectrometer facilities to attract the star faculty members of the future,” says physical sciences dean Kenneth Janda. “Many people are very good at looking after their own careers, but Larry built a department on top of that.”
One of the world’s pre-eminent organic chemists, Overman has also blazed a heavily cited research trail, including – early on – his “Overman rearrangement” that switched oxygen to nitrogen in a brand-new molecule. A former Department of Chemistry chair, he has mentored hundreds of graduate students, postdoctoral fellows and undergraduates.
“His excellence in research, his high standards for himself and colleagues, and his loyalty to UCI have had an enormously positive impact over the last 40 years,” says current chemistry chair Scott Rychnovsky. “His selection as a UCI Medalist is richly deserved.”
Elected to the National Academy of Sciences in 1996, Overman has brought ongoing prestige to the campus while leveraging significant financial support from governmental agencies and industrial partners.
Most recently, his lab was named as the second at any university to collaborate with Eli Lilly & Company in a new Open Innovation Drug Discovery platform that lets scientists submit data to the drug maker for testing – which can often be cost-prohibitive for academics – but retain rights to it if the company opts not to use it. Lilly researchers have already identified a compound designed by Overman and a graduate student as a possible treatment for type 2 diabetes, a leading health threat.
It’s no accident that Overman and his lab were selected to participate. One of his former postdoctoral researchers, Timothy Grese, is now chief scientific officer for such research programs at Lilly.
“Larry’s creativity and innovation have been instrumental in shaping modern organic synthesis, but what I really treasure about the experience of having worked in his lab was observing his ability to teach students the right way to do careful science,” Grese says. “Larry has been very influential in my career and in those of a number of scientists who continue to make a major impact in the pharmaceutical industry.”
Overman, 68, who worked in Indiana steel mills to fund his own education, says he and his wife came to UCI four decades ago for a simple reason: It was the only place that offered him a job. But he’s stayed because he loves the still-young campus.
“What we’ve been able to build in 45 years, for UCI to be the quality it is – it’s stunning. I think it’s unprecedented,” he says. While he thinks the students are brighter than ever, he’s “terribly worried” about the UC system’s future because of budget cuts.
A longtime Corona del Mar resident who plays golf and spearfishes, Overman also loves to gaze at the Marc Chagall prints gracing his office walls. Like molecules, they present endless possibilities.
“You can look at them every day for more than 30 years and still see something new each time,” he says.