Reactions – Graham Saunders

Graham Saunders is in the Department of Chemistry at the University of Waikato, Hamilton, New Zealand, and works principally on investigating the chemistry of transition metal complexes of fluorinated ligands, most recently N-heterocycle carbenes, and using transition metal complexes to break C–F bonds.

1. What made you want to be a chemist?

Those first few days in the school’s chemistry laboaratory: the odour of the lab was exciting and the apparatus looked so mysterious. We started off with paper chromatography of rose petals and ink, but we soon got to experience the bangs and smells. And then we were introduced to all those famous chemists with wondrous names. They were all Welsh, or so my chemistry teacher, Dilwyn Davies, had us believe. It was a big disappointment to find out a few years later that Amedeo Avogadro wasn’t born in Merthyr Tydfil.

2. If you weren’t a chemist and could do any other job, what would it be – and why?

If a debilitating lack of ability were not an issue I would play cricket professionally for my home county, Sussex. Part of the reason I love the ‘meadow game’ is that it is a team sport in which there are quite distinct individual roles. Everyone can play a part even if they have only one of the skills. It is also a sport in which thinking is an important factor, so it satisfies the academic. I play regularly, but poorly, for a local team.

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

A major thrust at the moment is somewhat of a departure from inorganic chemistry. A few years ago colleagues and I developed a simple method of making copper and zinc extremely water repellant. It was a project that was born out of ignorance; we never would have tried what we did if we’d known the area or read the literature. Fortuitously, our method generated an extremely superhydrophobic surface that rivalled the best. The collaboration, although now geographically antipodal, is continuing and we are investigating and developing the method further. I guess it’s true of most chemists that their research, although undeniably academically valuable, won’t directly have an industrial or domestic application. It was pleasing to find that some students in California have developed our work for a high school practical, but it would be very satisfying if it finds more widespread use. At present it is leading me into engineering.

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

Chemists are explorers; we seek and discover new compounds, new reactions, new properties. I would like to have dinner with an explorer of the more usual type: Sir John Franklin led expeditions to the Canadian Arctic in the first half of the 19th century. His final voyage came close to finding the Northwest Passage, but ended in disaster. Nevertheless, he was an inspiration to many other polar explorers, including Amundsen. Undoubtedly he would have a few good tales and some useful advice. A species of gull bears his name and there is a folk song about him. It would be interesting to find out what he would think of these honours.

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

Today. Days when I don’t visit the lab to tinker with something are rare. Unfortunately it is typically only to grow crystals, but I still enjoy making new compounds and preparing starting materials. I find running NMR spectra can be very therapeutic, and try do that as often as possible. Today I was only trying to grow crystals of an imidazolium salt.

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

I do not read a lot of fiction; I often feel after finishing a novel that I could have spent the time more usefully. But ‘Moby-Dick’ is one that I particularly enjoy, partly because it is based on an extraordinary real event and partly because of the factual content. It would certainly be useful if a whale were to become beached on the island. The music album would be ‘The Decline of British Sea Power’ by the indie rock group British Sea Power. To me it is a energetic mixture of passion and chaos, beauty and mayhem, belligerence and tranquility; it rouses a range of strong emotions.

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

David Lemal (Dartmouth College). He works in the field of highly fluorinated small molecule organic chemistry. I find his work elegant and inspirational. It is both synthetically challenging and theoretically unusual, because fluorine is so different to hydrogen. He is the cleverest person I have met, and also the nicest. I would like to know what lead him to chemistry, and what job he would do if he weren’t a chemist.