1. What made you want to be a chemist?
Way before I got interested in chemistry I had started drawing and painting. This is where my passion was then and continues to be now (besides science). When I got exposed to organic chemistry I realized that my drawing skills were really helping me in class. I was completely “sold” when I found out that it was possible to represent chemical properties by using neatly drawn abstractions such as chemical structures.
2. If you weren’t a chemist and could do any other job, what would it be – and why?
There is no doubt in my mind that it would be fine arts. I do this regularly even now by attending weekly life drawing sessions at the Toronto School of Arts and the Arts Gallery of Ontario. This is what I will do 100% when (and if) I retire.
3. What are you working on now, and where do you hope it will lead?
We are working on the so-called amphoteric molecules. They contain counterintuitive combinations of mutually exclusive functional groups (for instance – an amine and an aldehyde). It is a simple concept but the resulting reagents help us design effective syntheses with high bond forming efficiency. In terms of applications, our current focus is on what we like to call cycloinformatics. It deals with the emergence of functionally significant folded structures out of large macrocyclic molecules. We want to be in a position to offer synthetic processes that will help define rules that govern both protein target selectivity and cell permeability of protein fold mimetics.
4. Which historical figure would you most like to have dinner with – and why?
This will have to be Paul Cezanne. He had a rare gift to discern similar tonal values among different colors. In his work, Cezanne was able to create an infallible perception of depth using tone alone, by making a mosaic of tiny brush strokes of color. There was a rhythm in his brushstrokes, you can see it and feel it. His colors vibrate after all these years and nothing is ever static in his work. Towards the end of his life he foreshadowed cubism through his use of tonal values (take a look at his late Mt. St. Victoire paintings). This is whom Picasso (whom I like but am not too passionate about) learned cubism from.
5. When was the last time you did an experiment in the lab – and what was it?
I love synthetic electrochemistry. The last time I ran a reaction (sadly) was about 9 years ago. We plugged two platinum electrodes into an acetonitrile solution (with some supporting electrolyte) and made an oxidized heterocycle. I will probably go back to that soon since students really shy away from electrosynthesis and I want to keep convincing them (haha – every 9 years!) that there is not much to it, really.
6. If exiled on a desert island, what one book and one music album would you take with you?
As far as music I would take Prokofiev’s violin concertos (with Oistrakh) and Shostakovich’s 24 preludes and Fugues (by Nikolaeva). In terms of a book – it would be Sholokhov’s “Tihii Don” (in Russian, it will be “Quiet Flows the Don” in English).
7. Which chemist would you like to see interviewed on Reactions – and why?
I would suggest Bruce Maryanoff. He is someone who has a ton of great science stories to tell about how medicinal chemistry is done. He is also a great connoisseur of wine and I am hoping he will share a few anecdotes as well! I would also suggest my good friend Christophe Coperet, who is working in the area of heterogeneous catalysis and has done some wonderful work there (by coincidence, also a real expert in wine!).