Jan Hartmann is in the Department of Chemistry at RWTH Aachen University, and works on organocatalytic asymmetric synthesis — he is also one of the winners of our In Your Element essay competition, for which he wrote about plutonium (here is a write-up of his article by yours truly) .
1. What made you want to be a chemist?
That is rather hard to say. I found the first year of chemistry in high school quite boring, but nevertheless wanted to do my own experiments with a chemistry set. My parents were reluctant back then, emphasizing that they wished the roof to remain where it is, but I was eventually able to persuade them and from then on, my interest has continually grown.
2. If you weren’t a chemist and could do any other job, what would it be – and why?
I have always been interested in the natural sciences in general, not just chemistry. I was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes at age two and that has had a remarkable influence on my life, far beyond my eating habits. It got me interested in biology, human anatomy and medicine while I was still in kindergarten and that interest may have shifted to other areas of science, but never faded. Still I consider those parts of chemistry on the borderline to biology as the most interesting and if I wasn’t a chemist, I would most likely be a biologist or a doctor.
3. What are you working on now, and where do you hope it will lead?
I have been working on several aspects of asymmetric organocatalysis for my bachelor thesis and a master research project. Work in this area is, of course, always connected to the hope of improvements in general synthetic methodology and especially in drug discovery. The extraordinary importance of correct stereochemistry in the latter has tragically been established here in Aachen in the 1950s and ’60s by the thalidomide scandal.
4. Which historical figure would you most like to have dinner with – and why?
Being a big fan of space travel, my choices here would be Neil Armstrong or “Buzz” Aldrin. The Apollo Program and especially Apollo 11 as arguably one of the greatest technological feats of mankind have remained and sure always will remain a powerful symbol and an inspiration to keep exploring.
5. When was the last time you did an experiment in the lab – and what was it?
(Since I am in the lab almost every day, whatever I put here will be more than outdated by the time it’s posted.)
6. If exiled on a desert island, what one book and one music album would you take with you?
As for the music album, probably a Scorpions Best Of. The book would be a much harder choice, but Hemingway’s “For Whom The Bell Tolls” and Lee’s “To Kill A Mockingbird” would certainly be among the top contenders.
7. Which chemist would you like to see interviewed on Reactions – and why?
My research group leader, Prof. Dieter Enders. Seriously, who wouldn’t want to know the last time their boss was productive in the lab?
All joking aside, with the discovery of the structure of DNA celebrating its 60th anniversary this year, I’d consider an interview with James D. Watson.