1. What made you want to be a chemist?
As a child, I read several books about scientists and inventors (Marie Curie, Robert Wood, Bell, Paster, Koch, etc), and I was taken away by their world of everyday intellectual adventure and excitement of trying to solve puzzles of Nature. It was very different from the adult world around me where people regarded their jobs as a drag and counted hours left till a weekend and days left till a vacation. I wanted to be part of that other world. I liked all science subjects. I first wanted to a geologist (travel and wild outdoor life), then I read a book on biology that had scanning electron microscope images of cells, and decided to become a biologist, then I wanted to be a physicist cleaning spectrometers with cats and exposing dishonest boarding house operators using atomic flame tests (like Wood), but somehow chemistry took over. I think I really got excited about chemistry as I was experimenting in my home-made lab (stocked with not an entirely safe selection of chemicals that went beyond a chemistry set I cajoled my parents to get for me). I really loved explosions and mischief — like sodium in a toilet or nitrogen triiodide in the teachers lounge (almost got kicked out of school for this one). And then of course colors and smells (stink bombs are fun too!) and precipitates — it was like magic!
2. If you weren’t a chemist and could do any other job, what would it be – and why?
Hmm, I dunno. I guess any job involving scientific research would be fun. Physics, biology, astronomy, engineering — it’s all good…
3. What are you working on now, and where do you hope it will lead?
I am getting increasingly drawn into biological problems. Currently, I am obsessing about fluorescent proteins (from the green fluorescent protein family — yes, this yucky stuff from a jelly fish). I am fascinated by their rich photo-physics and at the moment I am just trying to understand how do they work on the atomic level (if you want to learn more — check out our recent feature article in Acc. Chem. Res. DOI:10.1021/ar2001556). I hope that eventually we will be able to transition from understanding to engineering, that is, to use what we learned to solve important practical problems, like developing better genetically-encoded labels for 3D in vivo imaging or employing fluorescent proteins in photodynamic therapies.
4. Which historical figure would you most like to have dinner with – and why?
Richard Feynman. He is so sharp and so funny!
5. When was the last time you did an experiment in the lab – and what was it?
My lab is my computer cluster — I do virtual chemistry most of the time. Two weeks ago I was looking at IrBrn– clusters (a request from a collaborator) — our goal was to understand their electronically excited states. Turns out, they are very, very tricky ;). The last real chemistry experiment was, I think, an overpressure explosion in a General Chemistry class last spring — liquid nitrogen in a cola bottle — ummmm, very, very loud!!! One of my favorites.
6. If exiled on a desert island, what one book and one music album would you take with you?
Book: “The hitchhiker’s guide to the galaxy”. Music: an album by “Neschastnii Sluchai”, my favorite band.
7. Which chemist would you like to see interviewed on Reactions – and why?
My colleague Curt Wittig. You will know why when you get his answers.