Nature Chemistry | The Sceptical Chymist

Reactions – Wilhelm Huck

Wilhelm Huck is at the Institute for Molecules and Materials at the Radboud University Nijmegen in the Netherlands and works on picoliter droplets that can be used as artificial cells to study the influence that the crowded environment commonly found in living cells has on the ‘chemistry of life’.

1. What made you want to be a chemist?

I was fascinated by the way chemistry could present a molecular picture of how our body works. At the same time, I grew up next to one of the largest chemical sites in the Netherlands (DSM) and saw that this molecular picture can also be applied to the synthetic world around us.

2. If you weren’t a chemist and could do any other job, what would it be – and why?

Perhaps it would be fun to be a banker for a while. It can’t be that difficult, and if I turn out to be any good, I could go back to chemistry and wouldn’t have to write any grant proposals any more.

3. What are you working on now, and where do you hope it will lead?

I just started on a very new topic in my new lab at the Radboud University Nijmegen. I think that at a fundamental level, we don’t understand how a cell functions as a chemical reactor. We might have a complete ‘parts list’ and know where everything goes, but we don’t know much about how coupled chemical reactions behave in the crowded, stochastic environment in the interior of the cell. Using living cells is extremely fruitful, but will not allow us to retrieve kinetic and thermodynamic data because we can’t dilute or heat the cells. Therefore, I want to use picoliter droplets in microfluidic devices as artificial cells that can contain the machinery required to transcribe and translate DNA into RNA into proteins, and follow these processes with physical organic chemistry techniques.

4. Which historical figure would you most like to have dinner with – and why?

Fred Sanger. I would like to know how he conceived his strategies to tackle the daunting projects he worked on. In many cases, his chemistry is so deceivingly simple but works so amazingly well. He must be the most naturally gifted chemist ever.

5. When was the last time you did an experiment in the lab – and what was it?

I generally need someone to help me…. but we are currently building a new set-up to sort single cells in droplets and occasionally I help aligning the lasers…

6. If exiled on a desert island, what one book and one music album would you take with you?

Difficult question. Assuming I will be marooned for a long time, would I really like to read that one book over and over again? Perhaps it will give me time to finally read the Molecular Biology of the Cell. It is a gripping read!

As for the music: I can’t concentrate when listening to music. The background noise of the ocean will be fine.

7. Which chemist would you like to see interviewed on Reactions – and why?

Bartosz Grzybowski. He is working on some really clever chemistry, but most importantly, I would like to read what historical figure he would like to have dinner with.


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