A Physical Chemist Puts a Toe into the Pool of Organic Chemistry

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Oct 25, 2019
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It is funny to think of myself as a professional chemist. Chemistry was not my favorite subject in high school, and was definitely not my favorite subject in college (nor was I any good at it), until I discovered quantum mechanics. Quantum mechanics somehow rang as true as the contemporary English literature I was obsessed with at the time. Mathematical representations were more logical and more convincing to me than any chemical structure drawn in organic chemistry. I have come to realize that physical scientists break roughly into three categories: mathematical thinkers (they tend to be physicists, physical chemists, and theoreticians), spatial thinkers (they tend to be inorganic and organic chemists), and those blessed with the ability to think both mathematically and spatially (they are dangerous). I am squarely in the first category.

All of this is to say that the way of thinking that comes naturally to you is not always the way of thinking that sparks your creativity, or that makes the biggest impact in your career and your field. Scientific creativity, which has many of the elements of artistic creativity – synthesis of fragments of ideas, a lack of adherence to established norms or boundaries, an eye for simple interpretations of complex systems – may have components that are innate, but also grows from interaction with your environment and confidence in your own perspective and knowledge. For many, the latter two factors are not innate; they take time as an independent scientist, and the right circumstances, to develop.

The confidence and stimulation to step out of one’s comfort zone therefore simultaneously triggers creativity and gives a scientist the best chance of making a conceptual or technical leap, a major advance.   

I exited my comfort zone in 2014, when my lab transitioned from photophysics – using light to push electrons around, only to have them return benignly to their original positions – to photochemistry: using light to make and break bonds. For someone with a relatively deep intuition for how electrons interact with their environments but a severe mental block for the “electron pushing” method for predicting reactivity patterns, this was an intimidating leap. Our goal was to survey a series of synthesis- and energy-relevant organic reactions, in order to determine where photocatalysis using semiconductor nanocrystals could make a unique contribution in terms of reactivity or selectivity, and where we could uncover the most fundamentally interesting mechanisms of catalytic activity.

My group aspires to achieve one of the ideals of physical chemistry – design of a system that funnels energy from the environment or a far-field source to trigger thermodynamically near-neutral reactions with high kinetic barriers associated with specific conformational and environmental requirements – in other words, a synthetic enzyme. The day-to-day work toward this lofty goal requires the tools and methods of an organic chemist. Intimidating… but because of my spectacular research group and the support of my colleagues, the organic chemistry zone is becoming a bit more comfortable.

Go to the profile of Emily Weiss

Emily Weiss

Professor of Chemistry, Northwestern University

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