1. What made you want to be a chemist?
I took high school biology from a person who spent the first third of a semester teaching us about atoms and molecules, because he saw life as a chemical phenomenon. I’ve been entranced with the edge of life ever since, and have spent my entire career on that cusp, sometimes venturing into biology, and sometimes into chemistry. The structural beauty of crystallography and informational nature of nucleic acids seduced me into working at their interface. Being able to make things, rather than just analyze them, vectored me into structural DNA nanotechnology.
2. If you weren’t a chemist and could do any other job, what would it be – and why?
Chemistry gives me an outlet for my creative urges. If I couldn’t do that, I’d probably try to be an artist (though I lack talent in that direction). I’m a totally visual person, with not a lot of response to acoustic phenomena.
3. How can chemists best contribute to the world at large?
By doing what they do – creating and analyzing new forms of matter, and gaining control over the structure of matter on the finest possible scale. Saying that, one cannot forget that chemists are subject to the same social responsibilities as other citizens of the world, and they must recognize them.
4. Which historical figure would you most like to have dinner with – and why?
Probably one of the early empiricists, such as Bacon. It was a huge conceptual leap to go from arguing about what might happen in some circumstances, to actually looking to find out. I would hope my dinner companion had eclectic culinary tastes.
5. When was the last time you did an experiment in the lab – and what was it?
I’ve never done much in the wet lab. Mostly, I’ve programmed and modeled. I continue to model.
6. If exiled on a desert island, what one book and one CD would you take with you?
My favorite author is Thomas Pynchon, but if exiled alone on a desert island, his paranoiac tilt would not resonate with the isolated circumstances. I’d probably try to take a book on how to build boats from earth, air, fire and water, or more conducive materials if they were present. I don’t listen to music, so I would trade in the CD for a DVD, probably of ‘Casablanca’.
Ned Seeman is in the Department of Chemistry at New York University and works on structural DNA nanotechnology. He builds objects, lattices, and nanomechanical devices from DNA.