1. What made you want to be a chemist?
When I was a junior high school student, I was charmed by the periodic table. I have never lost interest in it because of its beauty. I needed to understand the nature of all atoms. Now, there is a big Japanese poster of “A periodic table for a family” produced by the Japan Foundation of Public Communication on Science and Technology in my office, so I can always see it.
2. If you weren’t a chemist and could do any other job, what would it be – and why?
A painter or a farmer. One of my grandfathers was a painter. He painted beautiful pictures of plants or animals on Japanese traditional cloth. My other grandfather was a rice farmer. He grew Koshihikari, the very popular and most expensive variety of rice in Japan. My family considered me to be the most likely successor in either event.
3. How can chemists best contribute to the world at large?
Education. People tend to keep chemistry at a distance. A product that originates from natural resources is highly thought of by people, in other words, they tend to be afraid of “a chemically synthesized compound”. For example, vanilline extracted from vanilla beans and chemically synthesized vanilline are virtually the same compound, but they will choose the former even if it’s three hundred times more expensive than the synthetic one. It’s crazy! I think the goal of chemists is to produce people who have high scientific or chemical literacy by using our chemical knowledge.
4. Which historical figure would you most like to have dinner with – and why?
Prof. Adolf Butenandt, Nobel Prize winner, and also the person to discover the first insect pheromone, bombykol. I am interested in bio-regulators such as insect or microbe pheromones and hormones. I would like to hear his private lecture about his historical work on the isolation of bombykol.
5. When was the last time you did an experiment in the lab – and what was it?
Yesterday. I am active in our lab. My teacher and master, Professor Kenji Mori (now 73 years old), is still active in his lab! So I can’t retire.
6. If exiled on a desert island, what one book, and one CD would you take with you?
I like movies, especially Science Fiction movies. So, I would take the soundtrack of Star Wars and explore the island with the music in the background during the day. And I will go on reading Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky at night.
Arata Yajima is in the Department of Fermentation Science at the Tokyo University of Agriculture and works on the synthesis of natural products and biosynthetic intermediates interest at the interface of chemistry with biology particularly the microbe pheromones and rice phytoalexins.