Reactions: Amit Kumar

amitAmit Kumar is the director of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) energy club and a research scientist in the Lienhard research group in the Department of Mechanical Engineering at MIT. He works on clean energy technology and sustainable water-energy-bioelectrochemical systems for energy generation and resource recovery. Amit recently published a paper in Nature Reviews Chemistry entitled “The ins and outs of microbial-electrode electron transfer reactions”.

1. What made you want to study chemistry?

Chemistry is unique and plays a huge role in the world we live in, especially with respect to chemical commodities and energy production. I recently completed my postdoctoral studies in the Chemical Engineering Department at MIT, where my continued interest in engineering chemistry evolved – I feel we cannot do any resource recovery or energy science without chemistry. In my view, chemical/biological/environmental engineering without chemistry is like a skeleton without bones.

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

I would love to be a full-time world explorer, such as Sir David Attenborough, because exploring unexplored nature is fascinating. My upbringing in a farmer’s family may well be the reason for this!

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

I am working on the water-energy interface for the production of chemicals using electrochemical systems. This is fascinating because the world needs access to sustainable clean water and energy. In addition, I am also working on energy-efficient electro-systems to recover resources. I am hoping that my current work will help provide environmentally sound and sustainable solutions to the pressing need for clean water and energy.

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

If I could time travel I would like to have dinner with the revolutionary Nelson Mandela and would love to learn everything from his struggles for humanity. I have so many questions for him (such as how he felt, what type of energy kept him going for decades, and difficulties he faced… this list is long) which I would not trade for anything, I would rather ask him during our personal conversation instead of reading a third party.

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

A couple of months ago, I was converting leftover fracking gas into biofuels. The experiment involved coupling the oxidation of methane — from reserve fracking gas — to reduction of sulfate in an engineered system as an environmentally sound and sustainable alternative technology. In other words, this work aims to use natural biocatalysts to capture electrons from methane to give sulfides.

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

For the book, I would take The Incredible Human Journey by Dr Alice Roberts. The album would be Radioaxiom: A Dub Transmission by Jah Wobble and Bill Laswell.

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

Prof. Alan Aspuru-Guzik of Harvard University has a unique approach towards materials for renewable energy. Although I have known of his work for some time, last week I moderated a panel discussion including Alan and I realized he is a great human being on top of a great scientist.

Reactions: Nilay Hazari

HazariHeadShotNilay Hazari is in the Department of Chemistry at Yale University and studies synthetic inorganic and organometallic chemistry, with an emphasis on reaction mechanisms and catalysis. Nilay recently published a paper in Nature Reviews Chemistry entitled ‘Well-defined nickel and palladium precatalysts for cross-coupling’.

1. What made you want to be a chemist?

As an undergraduate I was a double major in chemistry and statistics. Pursuing a career in either of these two areas would have enabled me to understand how systems work and analyze data regularly. However, chemistry allows me to interact and work with many different people on a daily basis, which I greatly enjoy.

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

A sports commentator. There are so many different sports that I love watching, playing and understanding. A job as a sports commentator would allow me to watch a large amount of high level sports live and also pass on my passion to other people.

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

My group is working on developing transition metal catalysts for a range of different process relating to the synthesis of both pharmaceuticals and fine and commodity chemicals. More specifically, there are mechanistic challenges associated with nickel catalyzed cross-coupling and carboxylation reactions that I would like my group to assist the community in solving in order to design improved systems. Additionally, the incorporation of a catalyst for formic acid or methanol dehydrogenation that my group and our great friends the Bernskoetter group at the University of Missouri develop into a functioning and practical device is another long-term goal.

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

Richard Feynman, who was a great scientist who by all accounts was a lively story teller with a diverse range of interests.

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

Around one month ago I made a pincer supported Pd complex from the literature for an undergraduate student who I am working with. I find working in lab to be an excellent break from my normal routine, which involves spending a large amount of time in front of my computer and in meetings. I also enjoy interacting with my co-workers in the lab.

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

For the book, I would choose A Catcher in The Rye by J. D Salinger, and for the album I would go with What’s the Story Morning Glory by Oasis. I was introduced to this album by my lab mates during my PhD and have numerous pleasant memories associated with it.

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

Ann Valentine, as she is an excellent role model and always has amusing and interesting anecdotes.

Chemistry in retrospect: Personal reflections on a polarizing story

eisenbergMany scientists will at some point come up against the question regarding what good their work might do for the world. For those working in applied and interdisciplinary areas, this is often easier to rationalize to the public than for those working on fundamental, basic research. In this week’s “Chemistry in retrospect,” Rich Eisenberg tells us the story behind PHIP as a case study for why answering fundamental questions in chemistry is so important to the development of the field.

 

The word “hype” has been used — and abused — when chemists are asked to explain what they do and why.  This extends beyond simple social conversations with friends and folks newly met who will invariably ask with a slightly glazed stare after we explain what we do, “What good will that be?” Even our introductions to papers and proposals promise social and economic good before the science is discussed. And yes, sometimes we do overstate the ultimate social, economic and technological benefits of our science when we are just doing basic research. The key word here is “basic” and it really addresses the key question that drives experimental science, “Why does this happen?”

I want to talk about a basic research story that commenced in my lab more than 30 years ago into which we were drawn by the question, “why?” Thanks to the current efforts of a former postdoc and collaborator, the answer will likely have significant practical applications in magnetic resonance imaging (MRI).  Despite its widespread use, MRI lacks sensitivity that requires use of large-magnet instruments and specialized contrast agents to achieve current results which are often less than optimal.  But let’s go back to the beginning and see how that simple question “why” drove us to where we are now.

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Introducing “Chemistry in retrospect”

ChemistryInRetrospectThere is a great deal of storytelling that comes along with chemistry. Take a look at any article from our ‘In Your Element’ series and you’ll notice the gentle reverence we give to discoveries and champions of the field. For better or worse, part of what makes a particular event memorable in chemical history is the mythos surrounding it: besides being an important compound, ferrocene comes with the twisting tales of its structural assignment and the back-and-forth between eminent scientists is recounted to students regularly, and we take note of the fact that the original report of C60 to Nature was written by Curl & co-workers in only a single day. These stories, and many like them, are the ones that make us proud to be chemists and excited to continue building these legacies.

However, there are plenty of stories that don’t make it into the broader canon for one reason or another. Every day in the lab we have experiences that build us as scientists and, as Beth Haas pointed out in her article on the autobiographical Lab Girl, there are stories of success, failure and everything in between that come together to form the full-fledged chemists that we are today. Moreover, I am a firm believer that there is value in sharing these stories and diverse points of view. As a young scientist, learning about the challenges that come up in research that you can’t learn about in a textbook or journal article can be the difference between thriving and burning out. Knowing that you aren’t the first to struggle with research in some fashion is empowering — particularly if it comes with some perspective on how to address the issue at hand.

It’s in this vein that I’m proud to introduce the first of several posts that will appear here on The Sceptical Chymist as part of an informal series called ‘Chemistry in retrospect’. In this series, I hope to collect stories of life in the profession that are less formal in tone but illustrate an aspect of the job or a particular area of research that might not be clear from just reading published reports. Some of these stories will be more anecdotal ‘around the watercooler’ tales of adventures in professional development, lab safety and more, while others will take a slightly more technical slant as they pull back the curtain on how some important work came to be. The inaugural  story is a little bit of both of these as Professor Richard Eisenberg from the University of Rochester recounts the story behind how his group came to develop parahydrogen-induced polarization NMR techniques as a case study in how curiosity can take fundamental research in new and unexpected directions. It serves as a reminder that sometimes you don’t get what you sought out, and a well-prepared mind can capitalize on that.

I intend to maintain this series as often as I have articles to post — if you have a story to share or would like to suggest someone to write one for us, send an email to nchem at nature.com and I’ll get in touch. In the meantime, I hope you enjoy this first entry.

–Marshall

 

Reactions: Bassam Shakhashiri

Professor Bassam Z. Shakhashiri is in the Department of Chemistry at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and contributes to national science education policy and practice. He advocates communicating with the general public through engaging science demonstrations, the web, electronic and print media, radio, television, and — best of all — in person.

1. What made you want to be a chemist?

Curiosity! When I was growing up in my native Lebanon, my mother knitted a sweater for me. It was warm and comfortable, but what struck me the most was its bright yellow color. I was curious, and asked lots of questions. What makes it yellow? What is yellow? I was fascinated and started thinking about color in my surroundings. Trees have green leaves and some stay green year round, like the Cedars of Lebanon. The leaves of other trees change color and fall off in autumn, only to reappear, green, in the spring. I received lots of encouragement from my parents and teachers. Later, during my formal education in America, I began to understand more about color and my youthful curiosities were satisfied, but this led to further questions that directed my scholarly investigations. I chose chemistry to help me understand the beautiful complexity of our world.

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

Political and social activist. I am dedicated to public service and feel that it is important to both advance science and serve society — that is why I went to work in Washington D.C. in the mid-1980s. I was chief education officer at the National Science Foundation (NSF). I led the resurgence of NSF’s science and engineering education programs at all levels after the programs were essentially zeroed out early in the Reagan Administration. I am committed to cultivating creativity and to fostering connectivity among science, the arts and the humanities for the betterment of society. I engage in conversations about the two strongest forces in society: science and religion.

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

My research work has expanded beyond developing new chemistry demonstrations for use in classrooms and in public venues to focusing on understanding more deeply how we learn and how we act on what we learn. Our first effort dealt with color, light, vision, and perception and resulted in Volume 5 in our book series (published by the UW Press). Systemically, we are pursuing hearing, touch, taste and smell in collaboration with neuroscientists and other experts. I am devoted to the Wisconsin Idea which is one of the earliest expressions of the obligation of a great university to serve all the people of the state and, by extension, all the people of the world. The goals of our newest program SCIENCE IN MOTION are: fostering community appreciation of science, cultivating creativity, exploring, learning, and sharing the joy of science among youth and adults alike.

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

It is a toss-up between Plato and Abraham Lincoln. I would want to learn more about Being, knowledge, metaphor, belief, spirituality, and democracy. I would want to learn more about conviction, judgement, respect, public sentiment, war, and forgiveness.

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

I do experiments all the time, both inside the lab and outside the lab, in front of crowds and for small groups. In December of 2016, I held my 47th Annual ‘Once Upon a Christmas Cheery In the Lab of Shakhashiri’ program, a tradition inspired by the great British chemist Michael Faraday. During the live program, my special guests and I do experiments for an audience ranging in age from 5 to 85. I also encourage the audience and the TV viewers to do home experiments we post on my website, at scifun.org.

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

Plato’s The Republic. Beethoven’s 9th Symphony.

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

Roald Hoffmann, a great scientist and a gifted humanist.

Reactions: Jianjun Cheng

Jianjun Cheng is in the Department of Materials Science and Engineering, Chemistry, and Bioengineering at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and works on synthetic polymeric biomaterials, self-healing polymers, nanomedicine for drug and gene delivery, and chemistry mediated in vivo targeting. Jianjun recently published a paper in Nature Chemistry entitled “Cooperative polymerization of α-helices induced by macromolecular architecture“.

1. What made you want to be a chemist?

I had very strong interest in making materials that can work and have cool functions. Since high school, I have also been fascinated by the versatility of organic chemistry. Choosing polymer chemistry and materials science as research directions is an obvious combination of these interests. I was very fortunate that I could build up my career based on my interests.

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

Probably some of kind of management work or as an entrepreneur, managing a large scale projects or many people to accomplish something big is challenging but would be very interesting. I often feel excited by important things that are not particularly easy to accomplish.

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

I am working on an exciting but challenging project now to use small molecule sugar compounds to achieve in vivo cancer specific labeling and targeting. We have validated the concept and published our preliminary studies in Nature Chemical Biology in 2017. Developing this technology towards clinical application is something I hope to push forward in the next five years or so.

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

Wallace Carothers, who invented nylon. He is one of the greatest polymer chemists ever and his work has changed the world.

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

About 7–8 years ago, trying to do ring-opening polymerization of N-carboxyanhydrides to make polypeptides.

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

Romance of the Three Kingdoms, a book full of imagination. The ancient Chinese novel contains tons of plots, many personal and military battles, over one thousand dramatic historical characters, and struggles and strategies of these three states to survive or to achieve dominance over a period of about 100 years. It is arguably the most widely read historical novel ever in China.

For music album, I particularly like the songs from Chinese rock stars Daolang and Wang Feng. Their songs have a ton of power, are very touching, and can go straight to your heart.

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

Prof. Haifeng Gao at the University of Notre Dame, a young, dynamic and highly respected polymer chemist. His “Chain-Growth Click Polymerization of AB2 Monomers for the Formation of Hyperbranched Polymers with Low Polydispersities in a One-Pot Process” work (Angew Chem 2015, 7631) is very elegant.

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!

Reactions Catch-up: Mike Tarselli

tarselliMike Tarselli works in the Information Systems division of the Novartis Institutes for BioMedical Research (NIBR) in Cambridge, MA. His projects there involve data management for external science and synthetic biology, while managing a global team of informaticians, web developers, and business analysts.

Mike was originally interviewed on Reactions in May 2013; this past summer he contributed to an interesting paper in J. Med. Chem entitled “Big Data from Pharmaceutical Patents: A Computational Analysis of Medicinal Chemists’ Bread and Butter.

Given the change in his research focus, we thought we would check in and see what Mike’s up to in his new role.

1. How has your job changed since you last appeared on Reactions?

Let’s see: New city, new company, new tasks, new projects, and new colleagues. I went from a small start-up focused on neuroprotection to the informatics division of a large pharmaceutical company investigating multiple disease areas. The common thread tying together my past few jobs would be understanding and anticipating chemists’ needs, predicting how chemistry will evolve, and communicating change to different stakeholder groups.

2. What do you think is the most important aspect of your work?

Scientific business analysis is a relatively new title for a rather old pursuit – taking the 10,000-foot view on scientific workflows, and asking questions like: “How can we streamline this process?” or “What’s the end goal for this group’s data?” If I’ve done my work well, scientists make faster, better decisions on higher-quality data, saving us all time and resources. I remain grateful that my role also allows for occasional original research questions, which we’ve pursued recently in the areas of green chemistry and patent mining.

3. Which is your favourite element — or if not an element, favourite molecule and why?

I couldn’t pick an absolute favourite, so I’ll give you three molecules: artemisinin, curcumin, and conolidine. Artemisinin, the recent recipient (2015, Tu Youyou) of a Nobel Prize, helps treat malaria for millions of people. It contains a remarkable endoperoxide (C–O–O–C) group thought to result from photo-oxidation of O2. Curcumin, a pigment found in curry and turmeric, conjugates to free thiols and amines in the cytoplasm through double Michael addition, which may have roles in apoptosis. Finally I first synthesized conolidine as a postdoctoral fellow; this subsequently became my first peer-reviewed publication in Nature Chemistry. Conolidine’s observed benefit — non-opioid pain reduction — remains important in a world awash in widely available, addictive painkillers.

4. Imagine that your inbox is empty, there is nothing in need of writing, and there are no experiments that need attention: how would you spend this free time?

As recommended by many great scholars, I’d take a walk. I’m amazed how much light exercise, a welcome distraction from the glowing screens and impending deadlines of modern science, clears one’s head and improves critical thinking. For maximum benefit, I’d probably drop into one of the many fine local cafes Cambridge proudly hosts, and walk out a bit more lively after a dry cappuccino.

5. If you were given $1 million as you stepped out of your office to do with what you will, what would you use it for?

A lifelong dream to endow a scholarship comes to mind — I’d contact my high school and university and ask how we could structure something for scientists like me: without much familial financial support, but showing the passion to help people and make the world a better place. Donations to Wikipedia, independent radio, and public parks might follow. If I have any of the million left over, I’d re-enroll in a continuing education program to learn a new language or pick up some business classes. Just for fun, let’s throw in a big meal with my friends and family.

6. Where would you most like to travel to, but have never been — and why?

Uh-oh, I think I could spend the rest of the post just answering this single question! Argentina would give me a chance to brush up on my Spanish language skills, while riding a horse across the Pampas. For a complete contrast, Iceland would show me the Northern lights (aurora borealis) and a chance to relax in the volcanic hot springs. I’m drawn, finally, to Shanghai, China, because I want to see such a city during its major growth phase – the number of skyscrapers built there in just the past decade rivals New York or Hong Kong during the 20th century. I’d appreciate the chance to visit the Shanghai Institute of Organic Chemistry, from which I’ve seen many important papers emerge.

7. Which chemists do you look up to, living or otherwise — and why?

This post may show the reader that I’m terrible at selecting absolutes. Thus, two more…

Carl Djerassi made his mark as a chemist, inventor, entrepreneur, and playwright. He constantly reinvented himself, whether at Syntex, Stanford, or in writers’ groups, and possessed an amazing work ethic and strong opinions. From him, I draw lessons about self-reliance and confidence.

On a completely different tack, I learned an important lesson once in a passing interaction with Harvard chemist Eric Jacobsen. He presented a seminar at one of my first pharmaceutical jobs, with the former Millennium Pharmaceuticals. Eric made a request I thought strange: he wanted to meet only with the bench chemists for lunch. Once the door was shut, he asked only “How do they treat you here? Are you happy?” to myself and a handful of other young scientists. And then he listened intently and delivered sage responses where appropriate. From him, I learned that you could be a warm, compassionate leader, and still deliver amazing science.

Reactions: Alexander Spokoyny

spokoyny portraitAlexander Spokoyny is in the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry at the University of California, Los Angeles, and works on inorganic cluster chemistry at the interface with materials science and chemical biology. Alex recently published “Atomically precise organomimetic cluster nanomolecules assembled via perfluoroaryl-thiol SNAr chemistry” in Nature Chemistry.

1. What made you want to be a chemist?

Looking back to my adolescent years growing up in Russia, I could not have imagined becoming a chemist, since I was more interested in the humanities (literature and history). Around the 8th grade, my parents (who are both scientists) decided to apply some pressure on me as they were worried about my career aspirations and high probability of me bumming on their couch indefinitely if I would become a historian (humanists in Russia unfortunately make even less money than they do in the United States). Around the same time I took my first chemistry class at school, which was unlike all previous science classes — extremely non-boring and actually exciting. What struck me about chemistry back then was how uncertain it was compared to, let’s say, physics where any laboratory experiment worked and could be rationally explained. On the other hand, the “human factor” in chemistry was apparent and things went often not the way one would have expected. In any case, following my compromise with the parents, I enrolled into the Moscow Lyceum 171 which was offering advanced preparation to high school students in chemistry to ultimately gain admissions to Moscow University. I have spent two years there studying advanced chemistry subjects (organic, analytical and inorganic chemistry) essentially at the University level. Professors there were truly fantastic and taught us a curriculum that is normally offered to college freshmen. Sometime during that period, I decided that I wanted to pursue higher education in chemistry and have been in this business ever since.

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

I consider myself as a part of the generation consisting of many kids growing up in a post-Soviet Russia with an infatuation towards the mainstream American culture stemming primarily from watching too many Schwarzenegger, Stallone and Van Damme movies. One of the really cool cultural elements in these classics (and many other movies as I realized later) is American diners and dive bars and the random groups of folks who used to show up at those places. This is something that Russia lacked back in my days, and I find these places personally fascinating and very charming. I would love to own one of these dive bars; I think it will provide me with plenty of interesting conversations and characters to meet with.

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

One of the long-standing goals in our research program is to make atomically precise nanomaterials. We use stable molecular clusters as template placeholders for the bottom-up synthesis of these species. By developing a wide arsenal of chemistry allowing to modify these cluster “core” molecules selectively, we want to build hybrid systems featuring metals, metal oxides, organic substrates and biomolecules. I think that atomic precision can be detrimental to some of the properties of hybrid nanomaterials and we ultimately would like to probe to what extent this is true in terms of applications.

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

Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain). He had one of the most brilliant senses of humor and I think that would make for a very enjoyable dinner. I am also personally fascinated with a post-Civil War era in the U.S. history so there should be a lot to talk about.

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

The last experiment I did was several months ago. One of the key precursors we use in our laboratory is meta-carborane. Unfortunately, purchasing it from the overseas vendors in large quantities is very problematic paperwork-wise due to the archaic silliness in the U.S. International Traffic in Arms Regulation (ITAR) stemming from the Cold War era (shout-out to anyone in the government who can fix this!), so we decided to revisit some old industrial patents to produce the compounds in our laboratory on a decagram scale. I’ve made several compounds en route to the final meta-carborane product and my super talented undergraduate co-worker Josh Martin has recently validated the final step.

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

Master and Margarita by Bulgakov and one of Taylor Swift’s early albums (this makes it official that I am not a closeted Taylor Swift fan anymore!).

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

Angela Merkel. There is obviously a lot written about her, but surprisingly not a lot on the chemistry side of things.

 

[Editor’s note: because at least three separate people asked me while I was preparing this how to pronounce Prof. Spokoyny’s last name, here’s some help.]

Reactions: Helmut Schwarz

Schwarz portraitHelmut Schwarz works in the Department of Chemistry at the Technische Universität Berlin. His experimental and computational research is concerned with understanding why it is so difficult to bring about, in an economically viable and environmentally benign fashion, the conversion of methane to value-added products under ambient conditions. Additionally, his commentary, “On the usefulness of useless information,” was published this week in the inaugural issue of Nature Reviews Chemistry.

1. What made you want to be a chemist?

Chemists don’t just discover what was already there, they also create new forms of matter. Among all the natural sciences, chemistry is unique in that it is most closely related to the arts and the engineering sciences. In this regard, it has led me on many a satisfying intellectual adventure.

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

I would perhaps join a theatre group, work on plays, and merge reality with the imaginary.

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

I am trying to understand why it is so challenging to activate small molecules like CH4, CO2, NH3, etc.

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

Nelson Mandela – just listening to him, perhaps asking him how he did manage to overcome hatred.

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

Ages ago – my students were not really excited about my showing up in the lab!

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

Goethe’s unparalleled “Elective Affinities” and Mozart’s dark opera “Così fan tutte”.

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

There are too many!