Nature Chemistry | The Sceptical Chymist

Reactions: Matt Rattley

Matt Rattley is in the Department of Chemistry at the University of Oxford, and works on cascade catalysis in heterocycle synthesis — and is also one of the winners of our In Your Element essay competition.

1. What made you want to be a chemist?

I think it had a lot to do with my teachers in school – my first A Level teacher in particular (a brilliant man called John Luton) was very passionate about science and definitely passed on the bug. It might also be a bit of rebellion, as my parents repeatedly refused my requests for a chemistry set for birthdays or Christmas.

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

If I were more talented, I’d enjoy doing music – I’ve played the bassoon in quite a few orchestras at school and university, but I don’t think I could make a career out of it. I’d also quite like to open a bakery – baking, after all, is just edible chemistry that always works (and it definitely smells better!)

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

At the moment I’m not in the lab – I’ve just finished my Masters project, which involved making cinchona-derived phase-transfer catalysts with H-bonding groups incorporated into the scaffold. They were a bit tricky to prepare, but thankfully they worked on the first thing we tried (the nitro-Mannich reaction), and having screened that, some of the others in the lab are finding some new reactions that it can also catalyse. In a few months I’ll be working on some cascade reactions to stereoselectively prepare saturated heterocycles for my doctorate.

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

I’d quite like to meet Gibbs – considering the massive contribution he made to physical chemistry, he’s barely known at all outside of chemistry, so I’d be interested to talk to him about his work and how/why he kept himself so hidden away.

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

The last experiment for my Masters a month or two ago was attempting to prepare a dialkoxyborane – it didn’t work too well, it just ended up making a polymer mess. To add insult to injury, my borane source (as the dimethylsufide complex) led to some unpleasant smelling waste, my labmates weren’t too impressed…

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

The book would probably have to be Roger Penrose’s “Road to Reality” – it’s as easy to read as good pop-sci, but it’s a very challenging look through the maths & science that underpins the universe – being exiled on a desert island might give me enough time to read and understand it all! As for the music – that’s pretty tough, but I’d probably go for the soundtrack to Bernstein’s “West Side Story” – the symphonic version is one of the best pieces I’ve ever played, I don’t think I could get tired of listening to it.

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

Prof Yujiro Hayashi gave a lecture at Oxford last year on some remarkable one-pot syntheses – he seemed like an interesting man with some very clever ideas, it’d be great to hear from him.


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