Nature Chemistry | The Sceptical Chymist

Reactions – Rein Ulijn

1. What made you want to be a chemist?

During my undergraduate years, while studying biotechnology, I became fascinated with the design concepts nature has devised for highly adaptive, functional structures. If these systems could be simplified and effectively incorporated into man-made systems, the possibilities for design of useful functional materials and devices appeared to be endless. Chemistry holds the key to all of this.

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

I would most likely be an architect. The idea of building aesthetically pleasing and useful structures according to a pre-defined design appeals to me. In my laboratory we try to do the same thing, but on a much smaller scale.

3. How can chemists best contribute to the world at large?

This is a cliché, but the most urgent contributions are required in sustainable, renewable energy sources. It may one day be possible to make molecular devices that efficiently convert solar energy into fuels or electricity. However, I would anticipate that the major breakthroughs will be less obvious solutions that perhaps have not been thought of yet. Emergence of these ideas is, in my opinion, only limited by levels of available funding for basic and blue sky research in this area.

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

If it were possible it would be Charles Darwin and Francis Crick, both at the same time, as I imagine them to be inspiring individuals. I would ask them for their thoughts on the limitations in complexity that evolutionary processes can ultimately achieve if pushed to the limit. Then sit back, listen and be inspired.

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

I have never been the keenest experimentalist and therefore gladly leave experimentation to my talented postdocs and graduate students. However, in the past four years I did conduct one experiment, which as about 4 months ago. This proof-of-concept experiment involved testing the use of aromatic short peptide derivatives to disperse carbon nanomaterials.

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

I would take the four volumes of “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” by Douglas Adams because it has been recommended to me by a number of people as a must-read. A colleague suggested that I have now been in the UK long enough to enjoy the more subtle humour in it! My taste in music is quite changeable so I would probably end up taking what-ever is in my car’s CD player at the time.

Rein Ulijn is in the School of Materials and Manchester Interdisciplinary Biocentre (MIB) at the University of Manchester and works on the design of peptide based nanomaterials for biomedical and technological applications.


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