Nature Chemistry | The Sceptical Chymist

Reactions: Julia Kalow

Julia Kalow is in the Department of Chemistry at Northwestern University and works at the interface of organic synthesis and polymer science, developing mechanism-driven approaches to new reactions and materials that can be controlled by light.

1. What made you want to be a chemist?

I was initially attracted to the puzzle-solving aspect of my organic chemistry course, but it was my first experience in a research lab (in Jim Leighton’s group at Columbia) that made me want to be a chemist. The thrill of getting a reaction to work, or making a molecule that no one’s ever made before, was addictive.

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

I really enjoy writing (which is fortunate, since it’s a significant part of my current job), so whatever I would do would probably involve writing in some way. I also love reading fiction. That being said, I don’t think I’d actually want to be a fiction writer — it seems like a lonely profession that requires great self-discipline, and possibly involves even more rejection than being a scientist!

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

There are two main directions in my group right now: one where we’re trying to develop new mechanisms for controlled chain-growth polymerization based on selective photoexcitation, and another program based on developing physical hydrogels that can be controlled (ideally in a reversible manner) by visible light. I hope both projects will lead to new reactions and new materials that are both useful and allow us to learn fundamental lessons about reactivity, polymer physics, and biology.

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

Humphry Davy sounds fun.

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

I set up a couple Suzuki reactions last week to make authentic product standards for one of our projects, but have yet to purify them!

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

Not a book, but I’ve had a subscription to the New Yorker since college and have amassed a collection of unread back issues that, to my husband and movers’ dismay, I insist on taking with me every time I move. So, I should probably get on that.

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

I bet Erik Sorensen would have great answers!

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