1. What made you want to be a chemist?
Firstly, excellent teachers at school who were excited by their subject. I found GCSE (16+ Chemistry) boring, but one teacher promised me that it would get more exciting at the next level. She was right. Secondly, during my undergraduate project, I realised that the job was all problem solving, including a little plumbing, and from that moment I was hooked.
2. If you weren’t a chemist and could do any other job, what would it be – and why?
I’d work for Jim Henson’s Creature Workshop. They make Muppets. I had a summer job there as a student, which I loved. It’s a fantastic creative mixture of scientists and artists, all solving interesting problems, in the form of making animatronic eyeballs and fur and using really new technology to make them other-worldly. I know it’s old fashioned compared to all the current CGI technologies, but these tactile monsters still have something very special about them.
3. How can chemists best contribute to the world at large?
Pollution is our biggest immediate problem, in my opinion. I’m certain that we can help by making things such as drugs and building materials more efficiently, and by cleverer recycling of our huge quantities of wastes such as plastics and carbon dioxide. But we need to focus on fundamental chemistry to make these crucial advances, not all sit on the same topic that we’re persuaded to by current funding schemes in the UK, or we’ll stifle the creativity so vital for the breakthroughs that can solve these really big problems.
4. Which historical figure would you most like to have dinner with – and why?
Tank Guy. His name is not known, and he might still be alive, he can’t be much older than me. He’s the student who stood in front of the tank in Tiananmen Square in China at the height of the demonstrations against authoritarianism in China in 1989. I was impressed by his peaceful courage, and the way he melted away after the iconic photographs had been taken. In stark contrast with the celebrity that people in the west seek out, of course. I would like to know whether he thinks things are changing. Is he still a peaceful activist? Is he now a superb leader?
5. When was the last time you did an experiment in the lab – and what was it?
Just a few weeks ago: A friend in Durham gave me one of his interesting reagents after I visited to give a lecture. There was a slim chance that it would react with one of our uranium compounds, which would have made a really unusual new molecule. But the chance of the reaction working was so low, and my students were all really busy, so I did it myself. It didn’t work, of course, but I have another idea for a different uranium compound that just might.
6. If exiled on a desert island, what one book and one CD would you take with you?
A friend of mine gave me a French-English dictionary of slang. I think a desert island would be the ideal place to try to improve my French in a non-evening class way. I’d take the Radiohead album OK Computer. It’s beautifully haunting and complex, just what one needs to enjoy a bit of solitude; also I’ve never listened to it at a high enough volume.
Polly Arnold is in the School of Chemistry at the University of Edinburgh, UK, and works on the synthesis of compounds of the lanthanides and actinides that have unusual structures and reaction chemistry, with the aim of activating small molecules and finding new catalysts.