The ACS awards the Priestley Medal annually to a single individual for distinguished services to chemistry. Dervan is being honored, according to a statement released by the ACS, "for his contributions to the field of chemical biology, especially the development of molecules that bind to specific DNA sequences."
Dervan earned his bachelor's degree from Boston College in 1967 and his PhD from Yale in 1972. He joined Caltech as an assistant professor in 1973, and was named associate professor in 1979 and professor in 1982. He served as the chair of the Division of Chemistry and Chemical engineering from 1994–99 and as vice president for development and institute relations from 2011–12.
Dervan's research has focused on the intersection between biology and chemistry, a field known as chemical biology. He has developed a number of synthetic molecules that bind to specific DNA sequences and can regulate gene expression—the process in which a gene is used by a cell.
In addition to the Priestley Medal, Dervan is a recipient of the National Medal of Science and is a member of the National Academy of Inventors, the National Academy of Sciences, the National Academy of Medicine, and the American Philosophical Society; a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences; and a foreign member of the French Academy of Sciences and the National Academy of Sciences Leopoldina in Germany. He has also received awards that include the Wilbur Cross Medal, the Ronald Breslow Award, the Linus Pauling Medal, and the Tetrahedron Prize.
Dervan has served as a member of the Yale Corporation, the university's governing board, and as the chair of the scientific advisory board at the Welch Foundation, a nonprofit organization that provides funding to chemistry researchers.
The Priestley Medal commemorates the life of British scientist Joseph Priestley, who discovered oxygen in 1774 and spent the last 10 years of his life in the United States. Previous recipients at Caltech include Jacqueline Barton (2015), John G. Kirkwood and Arthur A. Noyes Professor of Chemistry; Ahmed H. Zewail (2011), Linus Pauling Professor of Chemistry and professor of physics, and winner of the 1999 Nobel Prize in Chemistry; Harry B. Gray (1991), Arnold O. Beckman Professor of Chemistry and founding director of the Beckman Institute; John D. Roberts (1987), Institute Professor of Chemistry, Emeritus; Linus Pauling (1984); and George S. Hammond (1976).