Nature Chemistry | The Sceptical Chymist

Reactions: Richard Wilson

Richard Wilson is in the Heavy Elements and Separation Sciences Group at Argonne National Laboratory, and works on the fundamental inorganic chemistry of the actinide elements. His work focuses on correlating periodic chemical trends found in the actinide elements with their molecular structure and chemical properties to better understand the nature of bonding in these elements.

1. What made you want to be a chemist?

Chemistry was a field that I initially struggled with quite a bit. Like a lot of other college freshman I wanted to become a physician, so I put my nose to the grind stone in my freshman chemistry courses and found out that I actually kind of liked the subject. I had the good fortune of having some pretty good chemistry professors as well. It turned out that counting the number of bees visiting a flower in a biology class wasn’t my thing. It is the hands-on nature and the challenge of laboratory work that makes being a chemist fun for me.

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

Well if everything were to fall into place somehow, I would definitely love to make wine. Chemistry you can drink. It’s no doubt hard work, and certainly not easy, but I think there is a thrilling selflessness (or narcissism) in crafting something truly exceptional for others to enjoy – and of course for me to enjoy as well.

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

I’m gearing up to start a new project with protactinium. A lot of people in the f-element community stopped working on protactinium many years ago. It’s tricky to work with and very very rare. But, what is puzzling to me is that many computational treatments of the actinides ignore Pa, as if the actinide series goes Th, U, Np, Pu etc. I’m optimistic that we’ll find some interesting chemistry here since it treads a fine chemical line between transition metal behaviour and actinide behaviour. It will no doubt be exciting to see where this research goes.

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

Dmitri Mendeleev. I want to know if his three traits of a good chemist (none of them fit for print) as told to me by a colleague are true.

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

I was last in the lab a couple weeks ago. We were working on synthesizing and crystallizing some plutonium coordination complexes for study using Raman spectroscopy.

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

So, I’d definitely take Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring”, as for reading material I think I should probably be forced to finish “The Brothers Karamazov”.

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

I’d like to see Richard Andersen from U.C. Berkeley interviewed. He’s pretty colorful and knows a little something about molecules. He always has a good story to tell whether you like it or not. No, I don’t think he’s Russian.


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