Christine Cardin is in the Department of Chemistry in the University of Reading, and works on the crystal structures of both small and large molecules. Her particular interest is nucleic acid crystallography, and she loves working at the Diamond synchrotron, near to Reading.
1. What made you want to be a chemist?
My father gave me lots of encouragement. He came from a family of Manchester engineers and had himself studied maths, as my son later did. I was his eldest daughter, and he had no sons. I think he could see that I had the practical aptitude (which he lacked) and thought that a woman would have more chance in chemistry than in engineering. I had a very enthusiastic (female) chemistry teacher from the age of 16 who suggested I apply to Oxford – chemistry was a fashionable subject back then, and Oxford was the best place, so I was astonished when I was offered an scholarship, and felt my path had been chosen for me. Chemistry was fun, and seemed a great escape from all sorts of mundane matters into a world of ideas.
2. If you weren’t a chemist and could do any other job, what would it be – and why?
There are some professions that seem to generate people who live long productive lives, or perhaps it’s that they attract them in the first place. I’m thinking of creative people such as orchestral conductors and pianists, who often continue well into their eighties and nineties. But gifted scientists like Max Perutz were also like that. My careers advice has always been to find out what you love to do and get paid for it, and now it might include using some interest or skill which will last for the whole of your life. On that basis, perhaps I should have been a travel writer. I could go round the world by train and ship, and write about that.
3. What are you working on now, and where do you hope it will lead?
As a crystallographer, I find that seeing is usually believing. I like working with people who have a mental picture of how their molecule or interaction will look, and want to see if it’s right. Sometimes they don’t like the answer, but that’s another story. So, right now, we want to link our recent work on crystal structures showing how ruthenium ‘light-switch’ complexes bind to nucleic acids to their photochemistry. Can we use crystallography to capture some photochemistry in action? That could be exciting. We’d love to take a nucleic acid crystal containing a photoactive species of some sort, shine a light on it, and see the result in the crystal. The Diamond synchrotron is well set up for this sort of thing, and we would get some insight into DNA damage mechanisms.
4. Which historical figure would you most like to have dinner with – and why?
Hmm, that’s a hard one. It would also be interesting to think of where you could have eaten, and what dining locations fostered the development of science. I used to work in Trinity College Dublin, whose Dining Hall must have hosted some eminent scientists for erudite discussions. There I was once shown a letter from Charles Darwin, perhaps he also visited that Dining Hall, and would have had some interesting stories to tell. A person I would like to have met, perhaps over a meal in Turin, was the great Italian and chemist Primo Levi. He most famously wrote about his Auschwitz experiences in ‘If this is a man’, but his 1975 book ‘ The Periodic Table’ is a wonderful autobiographical, but short, book, in which each chapter is named after a chemical element. It’s a masterpiece of conciseness, so there must be so much more he didn’t say.
5. When was the last time you did an experiment in the lab – and what was it?
Last night I was looking at some crystallisation experiments in the microscope, that’s my therapy. It’s like a gardener checking on how the vegetables are coming along.
6. If exiled on a desert island, what one book and one music album would you take with you?
I’m not very good at hypothetical situations. But my daughter has recorded some of her music, and the sound of her singing to her guitar would keep my spirits up more than anything. We have hundreds of classical CDs at home, but I couldn’t choose between them. Any Mozart opera would be good, though. I should probably take the last novel I started reading and still haven’t finished, a year or so later, Haruki Murakami’s ‘Norwegian Wood’. Murakami was reacommended by my daughter and I did read ‘Kafka on the Shore’ which has a strange hypnotic quality.
7. Which chemist would you like to see interviewed on Reactions – and why?
My former PhD supervisor Mike Lappert. He’s how I met my husband, David. He’s still travelling the world as a chemist, and it’s keeping him young. He’s also the person that suggested I try crystallography, guessing that I might perfer that to organometallic synthesis. I never really looked back.