Matthew Todd is in the School of Chemistry at The University of Sydney, and works on organic synthesis, asymmetric catalysis and chemical sensing. He has a particular interest in the use of open source methods in research, particularly for open source drug discovery. He can also be found on Twitter at @mattoddchem.
1. What made you want to be a chemist?
Childhood disbelief. I remember learning about molecules and being fascinated that we could work out so much about things that we could never see. I couldn’t believe the speed of molecular events or the complexity of the cell. One day I saw a crude black and white wireframe animation of DNA – from a whole chromosome, zooming in, unfurling, until one could see the base pairs. It was like some living sculpture – a masterpiece. All I could think was “You have got to be kidding me. That’s real?”
2. If you weren’t a chemist and could do any other job, what would it be – and why?
Movie location scout. This would couple two of my greatest pleasures – movies and travel. And I’d get paid doing it.
3. What are you working on now, and where do you hope it will lead?
Open source drug discovery. We’re trying to show that you can discover a drug via an open source process where all data and ideas are freely shared, anyone can participate and there are no patents. You don’t actually need patents to discover and develop drugs, we just all assume it’s necessary. By working openly you stimulate contributions from a wide range of experts. Open source creates this unique mixture – an open, meritocratic arena which is truly, and rather brutally, competitive, but because everything is shared the competition ultimately results in cooperation – I find that fascinating. The open drug discovery project maintains public, online lab books, meaning anyone can use the data and criticise/contribute at any level. We published a paper last year (http://www.nature.com/nchem/journal/v3/n10/full/nchem.1149.html) that described the acceleration we saw in our first open source chemistry project – motivated strangers contributed and sped things up significantly, leading to a drug synthesis that was benchmarked against one developed by a commercial organisation. Where are we hoping it will lead? To a change in the way we do research – that keeping secrets in science is, most of the time, slowing us down and that we should value negative results along with the positive. We’re spending a lot of time showing how open research can be done, because if it can be done then we can tackle really hard problems that aren’t remotely tractable at the moment – new drugs for most diseases would fall into that category, but some of the really interesting basic scientific questions are just too complex to manage without an open approach.
4. Which historical figure would you most like to have dinner with – and why?
Socrates. Anyone who drinks and can talk about anything at all is OK by me.
5. When was the last time you did an experiment in the lab – and what was it?
I did a trituration about 4 years ago that made chewing gum.
6. If exiled on a desert island, what one book and one music album would you take with you?
Book would be Plato’s Republic because it’s the most beautifully written argument I can’t agree with. Music album would be the Ring cycle – you’d need a lot of variety for a long stay. Music to help you reflect, conquer and, ultimately, escape.
7. Which chemist would you like to see interviewed on Reactions – and why?
Barry Trost or Rainer Herges – wise, funny, honest.