Mauricio F. Erben is Adjunct Professor in the Department of Chemistry of the National University of La Plata, Argentina, and works on inorganic and physical chemistry of main group elements, mainly sulfur compounds.
1. What made you want to be a chemist?
Honestly, nothing in particular. When I was a kid, I was interested in natural sciences; not particularly chemistry, although I remember some experiments at home extracting chlorophyll from leaves using ethanol. However, during the secondary school, I turned my attention to questions of political economy. The final decision was adopted during the last year of my secondary school, when I did some training and spent a semester “working” in both a bank and a small biochemistry laboratory. I liked the second option more.
During my first year in the university, I was not decided between biochemistry and chemistry, yet. Luckily in the Universidad Nacional de La Plata both careers are in the same Faculty and finally I chose the “Licenciatura” in Chemistry.
2. If you weren’t a chemist and could do any other job, what would it be – and why?
Probably something related with education, I enjoy very much my job as a professor at the university. Because of the social relevance I would like to be a secondary school teacher, this is really a challenge!
3. What are you working on now, and where do you hope it will lead?
I’m working on main group chemistry, particularly the synthesis of sulfur-containing compounds. We determine some fundamental aspects on the electronic and structural properties of these compounds. For instances, we are trying to prepare new inorganic thionitrites, simple molecules that could serve as a model to understand more complexes systems. In particular, these species are of interest in connection with the physiological role of nitric oxide.
In a broader sense, my hope is to contribute to reinforce the scientific capacities of my country, in order to better response to the challenge we are currently facing. I think (following Oscar Varsvasky) that science is not neutral and science is a result of the society it’s developed in. And vice versa as well: the consequences of what we do in science and technology affects the profile of a society. So, as a nation, it is important to have science and technology that addresses our own problems.
4. Which historical figure would you most like to have dinner with – and why?
On July 26, 1822, a secret meeting took place, in Guayaquil, Ecuador, between the principal leaders of the South American wars of independence, the “liberators” José de San Martín and Simón Bolívar, it was called “The Guayaquil Conference”.
There are many hypotheses on what exactly they discussed, but no one really knows all that went on at that memorable interview. After the meeting, a banquet was given: I would like to be among the guests invited at that dinner.
5. When was the last time you did an experiment in the lab – and what was it?
I am quite active in the laboratory, indeed. For instance, last week a PhD student synthesized a novel thionitrite. As mentioned above, these are fascinating covalent molecules that are strongly coloured. We are now investigating the electronic transitions by using UV, fluorescence and Raman resonant spectroscopy.
6. If exiled on a desert island, what one book and one music album would you take with you?
I would take some stories by J. L. Borges, for instances “Ficciones” (Fictions) or “The Aleph”. My song would be “Adiós Nonino” a beautiful tango by Astor Piazolla.
I realized that both pieces are from Argentinean authors!
7. Which chemist would you like to see interviewed on Reactions – and why?
Interview Mario Molina, winner of the 1995 Nobel Price in Chemistry. It is interesting how his research activity (ozone depletion) influences many aspects of the political, social and economic life. The present discussions on the climate change probably will define the fate of the chemistry in the medium term future, especially in relation with energy production and agricultural practices.