Andy Hess ’58

Andy Hess ’58 is a chemist and researcher at Vanderbilt University.
Andy Hess ’58 transferred from Mt. Pleasant Junior High School to Friends in the 9th grade. Andy was on the football team for his four years at Friends and President of his Senior Class. Andy graduated from Williams College with Highest Honors in Chemistry in 1962.  His honors thesis research resulted in his first peer-reviewed paper in the Journal of Organic Chemistry,  In the Spring of 1966 he completed all requirements for the PhD in Chemistry at Yale University in 3.5 years.  After a 2-year postdoctoral fellowship at the University of Oregon funded by the National Institutes of Health with Professor Virgil Boekelheide, a member of the National Academy of Sciences, he accepted a position at Vanderbilt University. Andy’s doctoral and postdoctoral research resulted in eight papers in peer-reviewed highly cited journals. Andy published in 1971 in the Journal of the American Chemical Society a seminal paper that 2 referees recommended rejection of the paper, but the Editor accepted the paper and noted that his paper would be highly cited for years to come (over 600 citations and still counting!).  Andy was promoted early to Associate Professor with tenure at the end of his fourth year at Vanderbilt University. Andy was awarded a one-year National Academy of Sciences Exchange Scientist, Czechoslovak Academy of Sciences, Prague, Czechoslovakia, 9/73-9/74. Andy participated as a faculty member from 1971-2003 in the United Negro College Fund Summer Premedical Institute at Fisk University in Nashville to attract more African-Americans into the medical profession.  As a result of this, hundreds of the Institute students became physicians, dentists and researchers in the medical field. Andy was promoted to Full Professor in 1980 and in 1982 appointed Chair of the Department of Chemistry at Vanderbilt University, serving an unprecedented 4 three-year terms.  In 1983 Andy was appointed the Dean’s Liaison for the planning and construction of a new laboratory chemistry building – this involved working closely with the architects for the design and construction of the building. Andy published 150 papers primarily on the characterization and reactivity of highly reactive organic compounds up to 2002.  Andy began to study biochemical formation of steroids in 2002.  He published a communication in the Journal of the American Chemical Society in 2002 that corrected a long-standing point in the biosynthesis of steroids.  As computers gained in speed, Andy was eventually able to determine the very complex conversion of squalene (a long chain of carbons) to  the precursor to all steroids (four fused-rings of carbons) and with a group in China was able to include the enzyme responsible for this biosynthesis.  Andy retired in 2020 with a total of 200 peer-reviewed papers, but remains active being appointed a Research Professor after being awarded Professor Emeritus in 2020.

How has Chemistry education evolved since you graduated Williams?
I was trained as a physical organic chemist and early in my career at Vanderbilt University I became aware of the potential use of computational methods in solving the structure of and chemical behavior of organic molecules.  This was due in part to the seminal paper mentioned above.  The major change in computational chemistry has been its extension into  biochemistry, which I became a part of in the 21st century.  In other areas of chemistry, I have seen the merging of the fields of chemistry and engineering.  This has led to many chemical problems being more applied rather than fundamental in nature.

What is your favorite peer-reviewed, journal paper and why?
My first paper in computational chemistry which has been so highly cited and led me deeper in the field of computational chemistry.  A close second is my Communication which made a major correction in the biosynthesis of steroids and led me into computational biological chemistry.

What was it like planning the lab addition for the Vanderbilt Chemistry department?
This was a fantastic experience for me.  I essentially stopped my research during the one-year of planning with the architects and very much enjoyed applying my problem-solving skills to the design of the new chemistry laboratory building.  I drew on my lab experience from my time as an undergraduate through that of my postdoctoral study as well as being in charge of the undergraduate organic teaching laboratories.  At that time the concern of exposure to chemicals had become very much in the forefront of not only chemists.  The major problem that I solved during this time was  the revolutionary design I came up with working with the architects of our organic teaching labs.  This involved visiting a number of new teaching labs at colleges and universities and what turned out to be how not to design a teaching organic laboratory.  In a brainstorming session at the architects’ office in Boston, I came up with the design that was adopted: All students would be working in hoods. Each student would have her/his own hood.  The hoods were arranged about the four walls of the room.  The center of the room became the “instrument room”, which in all earlier designs were in a separate room where the instruments would not be damaged by corrosive chemicals.  This interior area was surrounded by student workspaces (non-laboratory, e.g., recording their results in their notebooks. I understand that this design has been adopted by a number of college organic teaching laboratories.

How has WFS impacted you since graduation?
The major impact of Friends on my life is that it directed me to what turned out to be a very productive career in chemical and biochemical research.

What are your favorite WFS memories?
The cohesive nature of 40 members of my class.  Many friendships were established with a number of my classmates that have continued over the years. Unfortunately, with a couple of exceptions many of my lasting friendships have been ended by my friends’ passing.

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