1995–2008: The James Chairship


Thomas James, 1990

Research adds computational biosciences; chemical biology; synthetic biology; design of small molecules ligands, proteins, and tissues

After Irwin Kuntz and Peter Kollman served as acting chairs of the department for 18 months (1993–1995), Thomas James became chair from 1995 to 2008. Computational biosciences, chemical biology and synthetic biology, and the design of small molecules, ligands, proteins, and even tissues were introduced, principally with new faculty members, including an expansion of the department size.

  • Jacobson

    With faculty turnover and success in computational sciences, Matt Jacobson joined us to push the computational frontiers, initially predicting protein-ligand interactions and computer-aided drug design.

  • Shoichet

    Brian Shoichet’s first work in the department pertaining to drug discovery entailed experimental work and several different computational approaches, including bioinformatics, highlighting the successes and failures of experimental and computational screening.

  • England

    Pamela England joined the department to apply her synthetic chemistry background in concert with electrophysiology and molecular biology to address problems in neurobiology pertaining to memory and addiction.

  • Wells

    After aiding Genentech’s scientific development and successfully launching and leading his own biotech start-up Sunesis, James Wells was recruited to develop the Small Molecule Discovery Center and to initiate his own academic research program emphasizing cell death and differentiation; Wells already had a long relationship with the department as an adjunct professor for many years.

  • Gross

    John Gross was recruited to study eukaryotic gene expression at the molecular level, with NMR being his primary, but not sole, tool; efforts to understand mRNA decapping details are well along, with structural biological aspects of HIV-1 initiated as well.

  • Fujimori

    Danica Galonić Fujimori joined the faculty to use her synthetic chemistry skills to develop novel chemical tools to elucidate the mechanisms of oxidative enzymes and carbohydrate-modifying enzymes of importance in human health, with an overall objective to uncover new therapeutic targets or diagnostic markers, and identify selective inhibitors.

During this 13-year period, the NSF finally began including the department in its list of chemistry departments, and we promptly became #1 for federal funding among all chemistry departments in the United States. The department has continued among the top-ranked.

Faculty members move to Mission Bay


Looking out from Genentech Hall at the Mission Bay campus

The amount of space occupied by the department tripled from 1995 to 2008. Much, but not all, of this increase was due to the move in early 2003 of a large majority of the department’s faculty to the new Mission Bay campus of UCSF, which we also helped design.

A look back at the beginning of the Mission Bay campus

The initial plan establishing UCSF as an independent campus included the aim for a full 25,000-student undergraduate campus that would have taken over much of the Inner Sunset to the west and the adjoining Cole Valley to the east of the Parnassus campus. Local political resistance was enormous, so these plans were scrapped; however, it left two legacies: a local population that has been sensitive to any attempts for expansion of UCSF and a state-legislated “space cap” at the Parnassus site. Because of this limit on space, UCSF research programs—including those of the Department of Pharmaceutical Chemistry—were forced to look elsewhere to expand.

The Laurel Heights campus was purchased in the early 1980s, with the plan to move a major portion of the School’s basic science faculty there. Local political opposition prevented that site from being used for wet lab research (but the department’s computational studies of the Ken Dill lab and the in vivo nuclear magnetic imaging (NMR) of Thomas James’ lab were permitted), forcing UCSF again to search for expansion space.

Included in this search were discussions of the possibility of relocating the entire campus outside San Francisco. The search ended in the 1990s with the offer of a 43-acre Mission Bay site, principally by the Catellus Corporation and augmented by 13 acres from the City and County of San Francisco, and the vision of a new biomedical research campus was born.

PhD graduate program in chemistry and chemical biology begins

The department has also been active in the founding and growth of the three-campus (UCB, UC Santa Cruz (UCSC), UCSF) California Institute for Quantitative Biosciences (QB3), established with a building at Mission Bay dedicated to QB3, housing several department faculty members.

The Graduate Program in Chemistry & Chemical Biology was also founded during this time period, with department faculty member Charles Craik serving as long-time director of the program, and the original Graduate Program in Pharmaceutical Chemistry, directed by Thomas James, was phased out.

Next: 2008—: The Wells Chairship