1. What made you want to be a chemist?
It was a “Goldilocks” decision…I loved basic science, but biology is too big (and also too complicated), and physics is too small (particle physics)… AND too big (astrophysics). Chemistry ‘the molecular scale’ was just right. Also, in my sophomore year of high school, my science club mentor, Ada Margaret Hutchison, let us have free rein in the lab for most of the year. I set a lot of things on fire. And I thought: sign me up for THIS!
2. If you weren’t a chemist and could do any other job, what would it be – and why?
I’d be a middle school science teacher. I love doing outreach programs with that age group – when kids aren’t too cool to get unabashedly excited about science. High school kids, on the other hand, terrify me. There have been exceptions, but they’re often too busy impressing each other to really get into science.
3. What are you working on now, and where do you hope it will lead?
In one of our projects I’m thinking about this afternoon, we’re working out some fundamental interactions of Ti(IV) with biomolecules that I hope will lead one day to a wide appreciation for a role for this metal ion in biology. Right now we all think of titanium as being mostly inert, but I find it hard to accept that biology would never have found a productive use for this incredibly abundant element for which humans have found many applications.
4. Which historical figure would you most like to have dinner with – and why?
I’d pick Ed Ricketts, a sort of renegade marine biologist who worked in Monterey, CA until the 1940s. He was a buddy of John Steinbeck and the inspiration for his character “Doc” in Cannery Row. Steinbeck wrote a tribute called About Ed Ricketts that’s now published with The Log from the Sea of Cortez, a book which describes their great adventure together. Reading that tribute makes me want to have a meal – or maybe a beer – with Ricketts. I imagine it would be scientifically enlightening but mostly really, really entertaining.
5. When was the last time you did an experiment in the lab – and what was it?
My most recent lab notebook entry is June 22, 2007. I was trying to troubleshoot the purification of a ferritin protein by getting in there and doing it all myself. The final gel is missing because I got distracted by some other demand on my time and left the gel in destain for a week. More often now, rather than trying to do anything myself, l spend a few hours alongside a grad student “helping” them with an experiment or an instrument they’re having trouble with – most often they figure it out themselves just to get me out of their way.
6. If exiled on a desert island, what one book and one music album would you take with you?
Wow, the urge is so strong to pick some highbrow thing that will make me sound smart and impressive. But I’ll be honest – the one book I re-read every few years is A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving. And an album I’d listen to anytime would be by Marc Cohn – let’s say his “Live 04-05” disc for a mix of older and newer.
7. Which chemist would you like to see interviewed on Reactions – and why?
Have you interviewed Harry Gray yet? He can always be counted on to be entertaining – I’ll bet he’d have great answers to your questions.