Reactions – Nicholas Deifel

Nicholas P. Deifel is a Visiting Professor the Department of Chemistry at Washington College in Chestertown, MD and works on applying crystal engineering to actinide containing hybrid materials.

1. What made you want to be a chemist?

Fireworks drove me to study chemistry. Growing up in Pittsburgh, I was exposed to local Zambelli fireworks shows over the three rivers. The exciting combinations of colors and explosions intrigued me at a young age; when I later discovered the source of these colors were metal salts I was hooked on chemistry. My love and excitement for the sciences was further crystallized through the efforts several awesome high school teachers.

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

If I could go back in time and put as many years into music as I’ve put into chemistry, I’d play banjo in a blue grass band. I love bluegrass.

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

I’ve been working on synthesizing several families of uranium containing materials. While the initial characterizations of these materials are complete, we’ve been lucky to pair with researchers at UC Davis, Argonne National Lab and Los Alamos National lab to look at their thermochemical and electronic properties. I hope that thermochemical data (specifically the formation enthalpies) of structurally related uranium-bearing materials will be beneficial to future discussions in areas such as waste stewardship.

In addition to experimental work, I’m busy teaching an academically diverse group undergraduate students at a small liberal arts school. They are both traditional students of chemistry and nontraditional – political science and English majors. Perhaps a bit sappy, but I hope my efforts in teaching these scientists and non-scientists lead to graduates who smartly question the practices of today and are ready to tackle the problems of tomorrow.

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

Since college, I’ve been interested in both travelling and the history of the Silk Road. That said, I’d like to have dinner with Ibn Battuta, a 14th century traveler who spent over twenty years of his life discovering the far reaches of Africa and Asia. I’m impressed with the fortitude it must have taken to leave ones family and home to engage in such extensive travel in the 1300’s. Perhaps he’d have some words of wisdom to offer as I endeavor to quench my own wanderlust.

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

Last Tuesday I monitored 12 simple distillations for my organic chemistry lab sections. Though I’ve done this experiment many times, it is still very cool to see the excitement each student feels when the first few drops of distillate hit their receiving flask.

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

I’m a huge sci-fi nerd, so the first half of this is easy. I’d bring “The Ultimate Hitchhiker’s Guide”, by Douglass Adams. Technically it is a collection of the first five books in the series, but I’ll assume your lawyers will allow this. Choosing one album is difficult, but it would have to be something soulful like Otis Redding’s “The Dock of the Bay.”

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

I would like to see Dr. Ahmed Zewail interviewed by Nature Chemistry, though Reactions is likely not the forum for this. I think Dr. Zewail may become the second chemist to win a Nobel Peace Prize after first winning one in Chemistry.