CHAPEL HILL — Holden Thorp loves a puzzle.
As a teenager, he won $500 in a regional Rubik's Cube tournament, which he promptly blew on records.
As a young chemist a decade ago, it was DNA, on which he published extensively and has spun off technology leading to 19 issued or pending patents.
Now 43 and UNC-Chapel Hill's next chancellor, Thorp has a new set of challenges. He will grapple with fundraising, a growing student body, the creation of a new campus, and pledges to keep the doors open to all qualified students, regardless of income.
He'll probably work quickly. He solved that Rubik's Cube in about a minute. He finished five years of doctoral work in three. He blazed from assistant to full professor in just six years at UNC-CH. Since 2001, he has climbed the university ladder with lightning speed, from planetarium director to chemistry chairman to dean to chancellor.
"It's a phenomenal ascent," said Joe DeSimone, a fellow UNC-CH chemist and entrepreneur. "He is a complete package."
In Thorp, UNC-Chapel Hill gets both a classic lab rat and a Renaissance man. He holds a prestigious Kenan professorship and is also a musician who dabbles in jazz and rock 'n' roll; he once took his 10-year-old son to a Pink Floyd concert.
Thorp is earnest and self-assured, with boundless ambition and a dry wit. At his core, he thinks science is cool and wants young people to become addicted to it. This is something he fosters in his chemistry classes.
Thorp guided doctoral students but also taught introduction to chemistry in lecture halls with 400 undergraduates. In class, he demonstrated a chemical reaction by lighting hair spray to propel a potato through PVC piping.
"I wanted them to get excited about chemistry," he said. "I guess I was a believer that if they came to class, they'd learn more, and so I wanted to make sure I gave them a good reason to be there."
'I just wanted to learn'
The potato gun was a bit of theatrics traceable to his childhood.
Born and raised in Fayetteville, Thorp spent a lot of time at the Fayetteville Little Theatre, now the Cape Fear Regional Theatre. His mother, Bo Thorp, founded it 47 years ago and still runs it.
There, he worked the lighting, which kept him up late on school nights. He later took on the music for the performances.
As a child, he moved from one challenge to the next. One Christmas morning he unwrapped a chemistry set.
"By the end of Christmas Day, he had discovered something," Bo Thorp recounted with a laugh.
A photography kit similarly captured his attention. When he developed his first photograph, he bellowed so loudly his mother still remembers the noise. He loved to write music, and would disappear into the basement of the family home, emerging only when the piece was complete.
"I was a project-oriented youngster," he said. "I just wanted to learn the new thing."
Having Thorp as a best friend was a blast, said Nick Robinson, Thorp's buddy since age 10 and now a lawyer in Pittsboro.
They won all the science fair competitions. They made movies .
Robinson was the actor. Thorp was the multitasking mastermind -- cameraman, writer, producer and editor. "It was kind of like having 100 friends because he can do so much," Robinson said.
One time around age 12, the boys made a film they called "The Chemistry Formula." In it, a child burns his hand working with a chemistry set. Angered, the child throws the set into a lake, from which a monster soon emerges to hunt the boy down.
"That's how it was with Holden," Robinson said. "You didn't just go to the movies; you made a movie, which is kind of how his whole life has played out. He's never failed at anything."
Except basketball, maybe. "It was the only thing I could win at," Robinson recalled, "so I would force him to do it all the time."
Amid all the hobbies, music was a constant. Thorp took piano lessons, went to music camp in Western North Carolina, and got interested in the guitar.
Anyone who has been in a band knows the feeling, Thorp said. The first time four or five musicians get together and start jamming, "That's a drug you never get tired of taking."
As teenagers Thorp and his friends formed a garage band they called The HANG, an acronym for the band members' names.
Now he jams with his teenage son, who has a garage band, too. And he plays keyboards in Equinox, a jazz band.
"My band's all excited about coming to Quail Hill to rehearse," he said, referring to the chancellor's secluded residence.
UNC-CH or nowhere
Thorp comes from a family with a Carolina-blue pedigree that dates back to pre-Civil War days.
So when it came time for college, he filled out just one application. "I guess the option was not to go to college if it didn't work out," Thorp said.
The family had connections then that will likely benefit the university now that Thorp will be chancellor. His father, Herbert Thorp, practiced law in Fayetteville, where his law partner and golfing buddy was Tony Rand, now state Senate majority leader.
As an undergraduate, Thorp was on the medical school track until he landed in a research group with some older students and a mentor, chemistry professor Thomas Meyer. Hooked, Thorp gave up on med school, opting to pursue science and academia. This was a professional coup Meyer still acknowledges with glee.
"That probably cost Holden $5 or $10 million in personal income," Meyer joked this week.
Thorp went off to the California Institute of Technology for his doctoral work.
Harry B. Gray, Thorp's doctoral adviser at Caltech, recalls a student so brilliant he finished his Ph.D. in three years -- two years ahead of most -- but also liked to clown around and dress as cartoon character Barney Rubble for Halloween.
"He was always much, much bigger than just a chemistry nerd," Gray said.
The next stop was Yale, where Thorp did postdoctoral work while enduring a steady diet of Shakespeare at the Yale School of Drama, where his future wife, Patti, was studying.
"I've seen more different productions of 'Hamlet' than any chemist in the world," he said.
He and Patti had met in Fayetteville at his mother's theater in 1974 during a production of "Peter Pan." Thorp was Michael; she was an Indian.
Career takes off
The couple eventually returned to North Carolina, and Thorp got his start teaching at N.C. State University. Two years later, in 1993, he joined the UNC-CH faculty.
His career accelerated with every new discovery. He became a full professor by 1999 and gained an endowed Kenan professorship in 2005.
Thorp, whose field is bio-inorganic chemistry, studied the role of metallic elements in DNA, the basic building block of life. That has led to 130 research papers.
He wanted to move his discoveries outside the university lab. In the late 1990s, he took his first big step with the creation of Xanthon, a biotech company. The technology, he said, was sound, but the marketplace was fragile. A victim of poor timing and inadequate funding, the company flopped.
In failure, he learned a lot.
"It's easy going up, when you've got 62 employees and the investment bankers are lined up outside your office. That's not challenging," he said. "Figuring out ... we weren't going to be able to succeed financially and figuring out what to do about it, that was an important thing for me."
He subsequently found commercial success, creating Viamet Pharmaceuticals from work he did in his lab.
"To be an academic scientist and an entrepreneur, it takes skills that not many scientists have, and he has it in spades," said DeSimone, Thorp's chemistry colleague.
In recent years, Thorp has embraced challenges that have moved him away from the lab. He spent a few years re-energizing the Morehead Planetarium and Science Center, then took over as chairman of the chemistry department. He became dean of the College of Arts and Sciences last year.
He hoped to teach his course in science entrepreneurship one day a week. But he'll have to give that up as chancellor.
The band may be in trouble, too. Thorp isn't sure he can devote much time to it when he takes over as chancellor; complicating matters, bassist Steve Allred, a UNC-CH administrator, is leaving soon to be the next provost at the University of Richmond. The band, Thorp deadpanned, is too upwardly mobile.
But the scientist, businessman and chancellor-to-be doesn't want to sacrifice his identity as an artist.
"I've never been at a point where I didn't have a way to play music," he said. "I'll come up with something."
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