Dr. Samir Zard is a recognized world leader in the field of radical chemistry. He has made significant contributions to organic chemistry and has developed with his research group numerous new reactions that have now become a permanent fixture in the armamentarium of synthetic chemists, with applications ranging from the synthesis of pharmaceuticals to the manufacture of industrial block polymers. He is currently Director of Research – Exceptional Grade (Directeur de Recherche Classe Exceptionnelle) in the National Center for Scientific Research (Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique, CNRS) and Professor of Organic Chemistry at École Polytechnique, France. He is a former Chairman of the Chemistry Department at École Polytechnique and was the head of its Organic Synthesis Unit for 14 years.
Born in Ife, Nigeria, to Linda Eid Mansour and Zard Khalil Zard, Samir hails from Jal El Dib and Bkenaya. Even though the hard circumstances of life at the time deprived both of his parents of any significant formal schooling, they strove to ensure that their children had the best possible education. Zard received his early education with the Frères Maristes and pursued the study of chemistry, his passion since the early age of nine, at AUB in October 1973. The Lebanese civil war broke out when Zard was about to complete his BSc. As a result, he left Lebanon in November 1975 for the UK where he was admitted to Imperial College of Science and Technology, London, in January of 1976. He graduated in June 1978 with First Class Honors and moved to France to join the group of Nobel Laureate Professor Sir Derek Barton, who had himself left Imperial College to take up the directorship of the Institut de Chimie des Substances Naturelles (ICSN) in Gif-sur-Yvette.
Samir Zard completed his PhD in 1983, working on the development of practical synthetic routes to corticosteroids, such as cortisone, which are important drugs that cannot be obtained in sufficient quantities from natural sources and often require further chemical modifications to obtain more potent members.
It is at the ICSN that Samir met his wife, Dr. Lydia Valente, also a research chemist.
In 1981, while still a PhD student, Samir Zard was given a permanent position in the CNRS as an “Attaché de Recherche” and remained in Professor Barton’s group until September 1986 when Professor Barton retired and transferred his research to Texas A&M University. Concomitantly, Samir Zard moved to École Polytechnique in Palaiseau where he was appointed as a part-time Associate Professor (in addition to his position in the CNRS) and was able to start his own independent research.
Under the guidance of Professor Barton, Samir Zard learned the art of developing or inventing chemical reactions. This included not only understanding chemical reactivity but also constructing various molecular architectures. The “Barton-Zard reaction” became a textbook method for the synthesis of pyrroles, which are the basic building blocks for porphyrins, a class of substances that comprises chlorophyll, hemoglobin, and vitamin B12.
Dr. Zard believes that “One of the unique features of chemistry is that it can ‘create its own object’.” Chemistry impinges on almost everything in everyday life, and the chemical industry irrigates all other industries. This goes from detergents to cosmetics, from perfumery to medicines, from dyes to paints, from plastics to fibers to high performance materials used in surgery, in the transport and aerospace industries, in electronics and computers, and in fact to essentially all that is used in modern society.
At École Polytechnique, Samir Zard and his students developed numerous new reactions, many with broad applicability. A major chemical process discovered in his group is now the basis of the extremely powerful RAFT/MADIX technology, which has paved the way for the industrial production of block copolymers. Many polymers (e.g. natural rubber, plastics and resins) are usually made up of a long chain of repeating units of monomers. For example, polystyrene, the white material that is used to protect electronic gadgets during shipping, consists of of hundreds of repeating units of styrene. It is also easy to prepare statistical copolymers, where two monomers A and B are combined to give random arrangements. Block copolymers, in contrast, were difficult to prepare on scale. The RAFT/MADIX process has essentially completely solved this problem. Rhodibloc® (Rhodia-Solvay) and Asteric® (Lubrizol) are two families of commercial bloc polymers manufactured by this technology.
Research in the Zard group has led to more than 330 scientific publications and 37 filed patents, in addition to over550 invited lectures and seminars, including more than 80 plenary lectures at international gatherings. His academic awards include the Silver Medal of the CNRS in 2007, the presidency of the prestigious Bürgenstock Conference for 2007, the Grignard-Wittig Award of the German Chemical Society in 2008, the Woodward Distinguished Lectureship - Harvard University in 2010, the Grand Prix Joseph-Achille Le Bel of the French Chemical Society in 2012, the inaugural Barton Distinguished Lectureship in Creativity in Organic Synthesis - Imperial College in 2012, and the Birch Distinguished Lectureship at the Australia National University in 2015. He was promoted to Chevalier dans l’Ordre de la Légion d’Honneur in 2007.
Sharing his passion, or obsession as his wife calls it, for chemistry and mentoring bright and dedicated PhD students and post-doctoral students is one aspect of the profession that Samir Zard finds eminently pleasant and satisfying. He strongly believes that fostering talent in younger collaborators and colleagues is a most rewarding and noble duty. The freedom to pursue curiosity-driven research (and to be paid for doing so) is another wonderful privilege. Indeed, one of his favorite quotes is that “there is no happiness without liberty, no freedom without courage,” a saying attributed to Pericles.
Samir Zard and Lydia Valente have been married for 35 years. They have raised two children, Michael, an engineer in computer sciences with an MBA from INSEAD, and Emilie, a practicing medical doctor.