Richmond Sarpong: ‘This is the best place to do chemistry in the world’

Richmond Sarpong, associate professor of chemistry

“Despite the financial ups and downs, Berkeley is, I believe, the best place to do chemistry in the world. My colleagues are excellent, and they make me better — and I don’t think anyone can ask for more.”

That’s Richmond Sarpong explaining why he’s here.

Richmond Sarpong

Richmond Sarpong

Sarpong is a young chemist who has already seen a lot of the world: He was born in Ghana, raised and educated there and in Zambia and Botswana before landing at Macalester College in Minnesota, where he got his first taste of organic chemistry research. That was it; he knew his calling. Next stop, Princeton for a doctorate, then CalTech for a postdoc and Berkeley for a faculty position in 2004.

Berkeley is where he chooses to stay — not for lack of opportunities elsewhere. Two outside offers landed in 2009 and in 2010, both from universities in the United States, one private and one public, both with good reputations and chemistry departments that are especially strong in Sarpong’s subdiscipline, organic chemistry.

At Berkeley, he leads a research group that is interested in making medicinal compounds that are inspired by substances found in nature — compounds with anti-cancer properties, for example.

The offers came to him, he didn’t go looking for them. “I think a lot of the time what obviously happens is that with the financial situation in California, people [at other institutions] recognize the opportunities,” he says. Young faculty just going up for tenure, like him at the time, prove among the most tempting.

Sarpong later ended up with tenure. But tenure itself is never part of retention discussions, he points out; if tenure isn’t going to be an option, Berkeley is unlikely to respond to an outside offer. In his retention case, he says that  “Berkeley was very supportive in meeting our needs, not necessarily our wants.” That meant a laboratory upgrade for Sarpong’s research group “to create an environment that would put us in a position to compete with any group in the world,” he says.

Funds were provided to buy equipment — a microwave instrument and a glove box, typically costing $45,000, to enable the team to conduct experiments in an inert atmosphere inside a closed space.

Before acquiring the equipment, Sarpong says, group members had to use other faculty members’ labs — and they were always welcoming, he quickly adds, “which is one thing I love about Berkeley.”

But “at some point, it’s important to get your own equipment so you can accelerate your work.”

Help with housing was another factor. “My wife loves it here, and I like it very much as well. But it’s expensive here,” he says. “Breaking even works for us.”