Reactions: Katharina Fromm

Katharina M. Fromm is in the Department of Chemistry at the University of Fribourg, Switzerland, and works on coordination chemistry, in particular on mixed metal precursors for oxidic materials as well as coordination polymers with applications in materials science as well as medicine.

1. What made you want to be a chemist?

Chemistry is for me the ideal science, combining theoretical with practical aspects. I always loved natural sciences in general, but also wanted to work with my hands on matter, to apply directly what we learned in the class room. Chemistry had the ideal balance in this respect. Finally, it is, together with Physics, at the basis of all transformations of matter.

During my studies, I always wanted to combine it with foreign languages, hence I did part of my studies in Strasbourg, France. In Fribourg, Switzerland, I can keep up this combination, as our University is bilingual (French and German) on the Bachelor level, while the Master is taught in English. Today, research in Chemistry is so interdisciplinary, that one can learn a lot about other fields of science, in e. g. physics and biology.

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

I admire creativity in art: music, painting, literature or cooking. So I guess, I would have enjoyed being active in one of these fields. In the mid-90s, when the job situation was not so good, with some friends, we used to make plans for a theme restaurant, of course, this theme would have been chemistry….

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

We have two main research activities in the group. One deals with the synthesis of new precursors for oxidic materials. Oxides are still made via classical solid state reactions, using high temperature and very long reaction times. With the current energy issues, we hope to bring down production costs by lowering the production temperatures and time. For example, we succeeded in reducing the production temperature for LiCoO2 – the high-temperature phase – from 850°C to 450°C. And maybe we can even get better at that. Related to this, we work on nano-scale Li-ion battery electrode materials.

Our second research field implies silver coordination chemistry which we use to make new antimicrobial coatings for e. g. implants. With increasing bacterial resistance to antibiotics, we hope that silver can help to combat bacterial infections. This leads us currently into the field of bioinorganic chemistry of silver, trying to understand the molecular mechanisms of action of silver in bacteria as well as in eukaryotic cells.

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

I would have been thrilled to participate at a dinner of the 5th Solvay Conference in 1927. What a high concentration of genius scientists there were, discovering and discussing the fundamentals of what we teach today…

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

Fortunately, I still do experiments from time to time and with great enthusiam when it comes to prepare our annual Christmas lecture / show, or when we have school classes to visit our Department. The last experiment performed just two days ago was the silver mirror experiment.

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

For the book, it would have to be a last minute decision between “The Buddenbrooks” by Thomas Mann, “Crime and Punishment” by Fyodor Dostoyevsky (excellent recent German translation be the late Svetalana Geier) or “Le Comte de Monte-Cristo” by Alexandre Dumas in French. As for the music, this would probably be “Die Zauberflöte” by Mozart.

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

Jean-Marie Lehn from Strasbourg, Ada Yonath from Weizmann Institute and Carl Djerassi from Stanford have recently been to Fribourg on behalf of the Fribourg Chaim Weizmann Lectureship (Chaim Weizmann received his PhD in Chemistry from our University in 1899) and would be great personalities to interview.