Nature Chemistry | The Sceptical Chymist

Reactions – John Spevacek

John Spevacek is at Aspen Research, and works on thiol-ene polymerization, mostly with UV initiation.

1. What made you want to be a chemist?

In grade school, I wanted to grow up and become a mad scientist, blowing up the lab everyday just for the devious fun of it. While I did become a chemist, I have scaled back on the rest of that dream somewhat (no explosions yet, just a few very small fires).

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

A professional bicycle racer. Not as a Tour de France rider, but a one-day-race rider, competing in Paris-Roubaix or Fleche Wallone. Anytime I ride my bike, I feel young.

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

We are looking to incorporate more non-petroleum based chemicals and materials into our products. Petrochemicals will be around far longer than most of the doomsday predictions we hear, but they will become increasingly expensive. This will make it easier to economically justify alternatives, and if the economics aren’t there, large-scale production just won’t occur. I’m also excited that these new sources of materials (microbes, algae…) will give me access to monomers that are otherwise too difficult and expensive to produce from petroleum resources.

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

Benjamin Franklin would be wonderful as he was involved in so many areas of science, government and diplomacy. Plus I could rib him about getting the direction for flow of electrons wrong, while Emil Fischer, a chemist, got the stereochemistry of sugars correct.

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

As my company doesn’t employ many technicians, I am constantly in the lab. Don’t considered that a complaint. Being in the lab is the other activity that makes me feel young. I am always trying different combinations of monomers and photoinitiators in order to change the properties of the final polymer. The latest effort is to use a bio-based material as a chemical feedstock, not just as a filler or a reinforcing agent. The challenge is that the material is not pure and has multiple reaction sites. Finding the appropriate reaction conditions is far more challenging than when you get your chemicals in labelled bottles.

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

Choosing the book would be difficult. There are so few that I would like to reread, and I wouldn’t want to take a chance on an unread book. The collected plays of Shakespeare would be a safe bet, and “The Tempest” would be the most appropriate, wouldn’t it?

As for the album, that’s a much easier choice: Rachmaninoff’s 2nd Piano Concerto, recorded by Jean-Ives Thibaudet, classical music that I didn’t know about until my wife introduced me to it.

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

Professor Robert Bryant of the University of Virginia. He taught my freshman chemistry class at the University of Minnesota in 1980-81, a class for which my high school had left me woefully underprepared. With his help, I survived quite well and have had an enjoyable career, so I’m curious as to what his answers would be.

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