Reactions – Christopher O’Brien

Christopher O’Brien is in the School of Chemical Sciences at Dublin City University and works on the development of robust catalytic synthetic methodology and target oriented synthesis.

1. What made you want to be a chemist?

I always liked chemistry I was taken aback at an early age by the beauty of it. As to what made me do what I do and the way I do it, that stems from a conversation I had with my grandmother from my father’s side. I think it was at the start of my undergraduate degree at UMIST, or may be slightly earlier, that my granddad was diagnosed with early stage Alzheimer’s. I can’t remember whether my conversation with my grandmother was before or after my granddad forgot who I was. The doctors’ were beating around the bush giving the usual false hope. So I told my grandmother frankly what was going to happen and that she should say her goodbyes as sooner or later he would not know who she was. Alzheimer’s can progress rapidly and in the case of my granddad in the space of one year he had forgotten who I was. To illustrate this during my degree I took a year out to work in Europe for Philips. When I left he knew who I was when I returned he did not. Overtime he forgot most people. Interestingly, just before an Alzheimer’s suffer dies he or she can have one moment of clarity. Fortunately, it was during this time that Alice was able to say goodbye to Len.

So now I am driven to develop synthetic methodology so that medicinal chemists etc. have the tools they need. I hope in the future no-one has to have a conversation with their grandmother like I did or witness the slow disintegration of a loved one.

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

I would be a patent lawyer or a computer programmer. I remember in my early teens spending hours coding a program on an Acorn Electron. I still remember fixing a sprite that was not behaving. I also studied some patent law at university and it has come in very useful.

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

Now I am working on selective catalytic processes that I hope to integrate into larger multi-catalytic self-assembling arrays. My group also tackles target oriented synthesis of compounds that target certain biological problems.

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

Even though I think you should learn from history or you will repeat it I don’t believe in idolising people. So I have no interest in meeting any historical figures. Instead I would like to have dinner with my Granddads as I never had the chance to speak to them before they died or lost their memory due to Alzheimer’s disease.

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

The last experiment I did in the lab was a few weeks ago and it was the generation of a special base for the catalytic Wittig reaction. I try to remain in the lab as much as possible.

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

I’d take a copy of the SAS survival handbook. I don’t plan on staying on the desert island for long I have things to do. As for music may be the theme music to The Great Escape for motivational purposes.

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

I would like to see Ryan Gilmour at ETH Zurich interviewed as I think he is doing some interesting chemistry.