1. What made you want to be a chemist?
It was the influence of three people. I went to Gateacre Comprehensive in Liverpool and had an excellent chemistry teacher called Dave Lutner. He was inspirational – I really enjoyed his classes. In those days, health and safety hadn’t taken over the world and we were treated to some fun demonstrations and had the chance to do a fair amount of practical work ourselves. Then, at university in the early 1990s I hadn’t found my niche until I started as an undergraduate student (doing a whole year of full time research) in Paul Beer’s group in Oxford. Paul is a supramolecular chemist and, at the time, was working on bis-crown ether molecules containing bipyridyl groups that could be used to control the conformation of the molecule via coordination to a transition metal. I found the idea that you could think of molecules as molecular machines absolutely fascinating and that was it – I was hooked! I did a PhD for Paul working on calixarene chemistry and then moved on to Jonathan Sessler’s group in Austin, Texas. I was very fortunate both to have the chance to work with Jonathan, who is an inspirational mentor, and to work on a project which resulted in the discovery of an important new class of anion receptor.
2. If you weren’t a chemist and could do any other job, what would it be – and why?
I’ve become increasingly interested in publishing and have had the opportunity to contribute to a number of journals on editorial boards and as editor. I’ve really enjoyed the experience and think it would be an interesting challenge to work full time in science publishing. With the potential rise of open access journals in chemistry and the general proliferation of journals I think the battle ahead will be to maintain quality. I think working towards that would be a really worthwhile goal.
3. How can chemists best contribute to the world at large?
I think chemists already make significant contributions to the world at large but these often go unrecognized by the public. We can fix this by engaging with groups outside the chemistry community – whether they be school children or politicians. We can’t complain that chemistry has a bad reputation amongst the public if we’re not prepared to put some effort into fixing the situation.
4. Which historical figure would you most like to have dinner with – and why?
Adolph von Baeyer – in the latter half of the 19th Century he started a lot of the chemistry that I’ve worked on over my career but without the aid of NMRs, crystal structures and HPLCs etc. I’d like to talk to him about his work and his mentor Kekulé.
5. When was the last time you did an experiment in the lab – and what was it?
If molecular modeling counts, then about three hours ago!
6. If exiled on a desert island, what one book and one CD would you take with you?
As a reminder of my youth, the CD would have to be New Order’s Substance. I’d need a large book for swatting mosquitoes on this island (I’m allergic to them) so I think I’d take the Lord of the Rings which has always been a favourite.
Phil Gale is in the School of Chemistry at the University of Southampton, UK, and works on supramolecular chemistry and particularly the binding, sensing and transport of anionic species.