James K. Coward is Professor Emeritus of Medicinal Chemistry and Chemistry at the University of Michigan.
Professor Coward received an A.B. in chemistry at Middlebury College following which he worked for one year as a research chemist at American Cyanamid Corp. Central Research Laboratories, Stamford, CT. Realizing that future laboratory work would be limited without an advanced degree, he enrolled at Duke University with the intent of pursuing a Ph.D. in physical organic chemistry. However, introduction to biochemistry in a seminal course taught by Prof. Philip Handler changed that trajectory. Prof. Coward transferred to SUNY Buffalo, Department of Medicinal Chemistry, in order to study with Prof. B. R. Baker, one of the very few organic chemists working at what is now called the chemistry-biology interface. A Ph.D. in medicinal chemistry involved a combination of organic chemistry and enzyme biochemistry. This was followed by a National Institutes of Health Postdoctoral Fellowship to study the emerging field of bioorganic chemistry with Prof. Thomas C. Bruice at the University of California, Santa Barbara.
In 1969, Professor Coward joined the faculty at Yale University School of Medicine as Assistant Professor of Pharmacology where he initiated independent research on the mechanism of enzyme catalysis, focusing on alkyl transfer reactions; i.e., methylation and aminopropylation. In 1979, he moved to Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute as Associate Professor of Chemistry and subsequently as Director, Biochemistry and Biophysics Program, and Professor of Chemistry. Research interests expanded to include the biosynthesis of “conjugates” of the dietary vitamin, folic acid, catalyzed by the enzyme, folyl poly-gamma-glutamate synthetase. In 1987, he moved to the University of Michigan as Professor of Medicinal Chemistry (Pharmacy) and Chemistry (LSA). This sequence of faculty appointments has a “Goldilocks” flavor – too chemical for Yale, too biological for RPI, just right for Michigan! At Michigan, his research interests again expanded to the study of protein glycosylation and an unusual reaction catalyzed by oligosaccharyltransferase. During his career, Prof. Coward mentored over 50 Ph.D. and postdoctoral students, as well as over 75 undergraduate students. Many of these students hold senior positions in the pharmaceutical industry as well as at academic institutions. In recognition of his achievements in the fields of medicinal chemistry and enzymology, Prof. Coward was elected in 2004 as a Fellow, Chemistry Section, American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) and inducted in 2007 as a member of the Hall of Fame, Division of Medicinal Chemistry, American Chemical Society.
Professor Coward was actively involved in developing the biochemistry concentration for undergraduate students as well as the Chemistry-Biology Interface Training Program for graduate students, funded by a grant from the National Institutes of Health. He served as the first Chair of the newly created Department of Medicinal Chemistry, College of Pharmacy, and also Director of the Interdepartmental Program in Medicinal Chemistry, Rackham School of Graduate Studies. He served four-year terms on two review panels at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) as well as numerous review activities for NIH and the National Science Foundation (NSF). He was a member of the editorial boards of several scientific publications and organizing committees of numerous scientific meetings.
I was recruited to the University of Michigan by Ara G. Paul, Dean, College of Pharmacy, and joined the faculty as Professor of Medicinal Chemistry (Pharmacy) and Professor of Chemistry (LSA) in January, 1987. Joining the faculty at Michigan was a wonderful culmination of a journey that started as a graduate student when I first realized that an organic chemist has the tools to solve many unanswered questions in biochemistry. That journey included a Ph.D. in medicinal chemistry with Prof. B. R. Baker where I focused on the synthesis of small molecules as enzyme inhibitors and it continued in my postdoctoral research with Prof. Thomas C. Bruice on mechanistic organic chemistry applied to reactions catalyzed by enzymes. Subsequent faculty appointments at Yale (Pharmacology) and Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (Chemistry) were learning experiences in terms of attempting to bridge the worlds of chemistry and biology. At Michigan, I enjoyed a joint appointment in two colleges and was able to develop education and research programs at the interface of chemistry and biology.
As with most chemists of my generation, I was introduced to the subject via a “chemistry set” located in the basement of our house in Glen Rock, NJ. My father was an organic chemist working in the dye industry, a job that would take his life at the young age of 56 due to the carcinogenic nature of the molecules with which he worked on a daily basis. My mother was a school teacher and homemaker, and volunteer journalist for various community groups. My brother, David, is a high energy physicist, now retired from the Stanford Linear Accelerator (SLAC), who was part of the team awarded the 1990 Nobel Prize in Physics. With my chemistry set, I attempted to prepare loud explosives, which usually produced only a stench in the basement and the reprimands of my mother.
I attended Middlebury College and pursued the standard chemistry curriculum until my senior year when my advisor suggested that I enroll in the advanced synthetic organic chemistry course, which would be taught by a new member of the faculty with a fresh Ph.D. in organic chemistry from MIT, and therefore completely different than the same course that I had already taken. Robert Gleason, the new faculty member, introduced me to mechanistic organic chemistry and changed the way I thought about how chemical reactions occur. This insight was fundamental to my own research for the next four decades. At Duke University, I was fortunate to learn from a more senior member of the faculty, a noted biochemist, Prof. Phillip Handler, who would ultimately serve as President of the National Academy of Sciences. He encouraged me to explore the blend of mechanistic organic chemistry and biochemistry that I pursued during my career.
I have never been comfortable with the usual distinctions between teaching and research, and tried to merge them during my career, for example, by introducing the latest research on drug design in a medicinal chemistry course or on enzyme catalysis in a biochemistry course. In addition, I was committed to bring the excitement of a research laboratory to students via undergraduate research experiences in my research group. At Michigan, there are many avenues for pursuing this, including the Undergraduate Research Opportunity Project (UROP) or the Research Undergraduate Experience (REU) program of the National Science Foundation. Effective teaching in the sciences requires being knowledgeable about current research in the field, the results of which should be brought to the classroom.
Many factors contributed to the success I enjoyed at Michigan. Critical to our research effort was the outstanding group of graduate and undergraduate students recruited to this great university. In addition, the outstanding facilities also attracted excellent postdoctoral research associates. Although we enjoyed support of our research from the NIH for nearly all of my career, internal funding from the Office of the Vice President for Research (OVPR) allowed faculty to pursue new research prior to seeking external funding. Funding graduate student support via research grants was always a challenge but, at Michigan, fellowship support from Rackham, external fellowships, and several NIH-funded training programs were a feasible alternative due to the excellent coterie of students and outstanding facilities.
I had the opportunity to be involved in several interdisciplinary efforts at Michigan. In the College of Pharmacy, I was the first Chair of the newly formed Department of Medicinal Chemistry. During my tenure as Chair (1999-2004), we hired four tenure track members of our faculty: Anna Mapp (joint with Chemistry), Heather Carlson, Shaomeng Wang (joint with Internal Medicine), and David Sherman. In addition, we hired Mustapha Beleh as Lecturer in Medicinal Chemistry, the first Lecturer appointment in the College of Pharmacy. All five of these individuals have proven to be outstanding members of the Michigan faculty. In the Department of Chemistry, I was heavily involved in developing the undergraduate concentration in biochemistry, which has become a very successful program. Across departmental boundaries, I served as Director, Interdisciplinary Program in Medicinal Chemistry, Rackham Graduate School (1996-2004). Other interdisciplinary responsibilities included development of the Chemistry Biology Interface Training Program at Michigan. Funding of this program required submission of an application for a training grant which I coordinated as the Principal Investigator. The application was funded and I then served as the Director of the training program for the first eight years (1996-2004).
Overall, my years at Michigan were extremely rewarding. As Lloyd Carr noted in his press conference following a Michigan victory over Florida in his last bowl game in 2008, “It’s always about the students.”