Reactions – Philip Miller

Philip Miller is in the Department of Chemistry at Imperial College London, and works on developing fast chemistry for radiolabelling applications in the field of positron emission tomography (PET imaging).

1. What made you want to be a chemist?

I always had an interest in science even from a very young age but it wasn’t until high school that I began to take a closer interest in chemistry. What really ignited my interest in the subject was a fire! A supply teacher was covering our science class for a week and did lots of crazy demonstrations — alkali metal reactions, rat dissections etc. lots of the interesting practical stuff — the reaction he did with elemental phosphorus to demonstrate its reactivity was particularly memorable. On cutting a chunk of phosphorus from the main stick he managed to knock the phosphorous off the demonstration table — taking both him and the class by surprise when it burst into flames, causing a small fire! Fortunately no-one was injured but we didn’t see much of him after that which was a real pity.

2. If you weren?t a chemist and could do any other job, what would it be — and why?

I always fancied myself as a bit of an artist. Art is able to reach out to people and inspire them in a way that nothing else can.

3. What are you working on now, and where do you hope it will lead?

I’m currently working on some new and really exciting chemistry in the area of carbon-11 radiochemistry. Carbon-11 is a positron emitting isotope that is used to make radiotracer molecules for PET imaging. The challenges in this are mainly centred around the short C-11 half-life (it’s only 20 min!) so the chemistry has to be exceptionally slick and fast. What I’ve done over the past year is to develop a new method for C-11 radiolabelling that will hopefully make the labelling process much easier to do and lead to new series of C-11 tracers for PET imaging. Ultimately I hope this will have an impact on the discovery and development of new treatments for diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.

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

Winston Churchill. I cycle past his imposing statue on Parliament Square in central London almost every day and think, wow — there is someone who has changed the course of history for the better by standing-up for what was right at a time when the of odds of succeeding seemed very slim. I also hear that he was a bit of hell raiser and liked a drink or two!

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

I’ve recently been doing some palladium catalysed carbonylations (insertion of carbon monoxide) of organobismuth reagents to test if I couple together alkylbismuths with carbon monoxide and a nucleophile. This was a few days ago — I will let you know the outcome of these reactions soon!

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

Joseph Heller’s Catch-22. I’ve just finished reading it and am just about to read again!

U2’s ‘Achtung Baby’ album. It’s the first album I ever owned and I haven’t listened to it in ages.

7. Which chemist would you like to see interviewed on Reactions — and why?

Prof. A. P. de Silva, Department of Chemistry at the Queen’s University of Belfast. I was lucky enough to have him as a lecturer during my undergraduate years in Belfast and always found him an exceptionally enthusiastic, inspiring and friendly teacher.