Reactions – Mark Muldoon

Mark Muldoon is in the School of Chemistry and Chemical Engineering at Queen’s University Belfast, Northern Ireland, and his research is focused on transition metal catalysis and developing sustainable catalytic processes.

1. What made you want to be a chemist?

According to my parents, from a young age I was always pestering them with questions about how things worked or why something was a certain colour etc. So perhaps unsurprisingly I always found science subjects the most interesting at school. Although I liked all of the sciences I preferred chemistry because it tries to understand things at a molecular level. I also liked the fact that it was practical subject that had real world applications and was central to pretty much everything that we have come to rely on in the developed world.

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

Outside of science subjects at school I also liked art, so perhaps I could try and be an architect or an artist (undoubtedly a struggling one as I wasn’t talented enough). I guess I enjoy attempting to be creative and I think from that point of view there is a lot of similarity between art and chemistry. Or if we are going for a fantasy alternative universe I would like to play basketball in the NBA or be a Scottish international footballer (although the latter would most likely mean a life of great disappointment!).

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

We are working on a few different projects, but the major theme within the group is selective oxidation catalysis. Oxidation reactions are a significant challenge in many different areas of chemistry; for example even a simple transformation such as alcohol oxidation is avoided by the pharmaceutical industry when it comes to carrying out the reactions on scale. This is because methods that are commonly used on a small lab scale are not acceptable when scaled up, often because they have toxic reagents or by-products. At the moment we are trying to develop catalysts for a number of different oxidation reactions. The aim is to develop catalysts which use oxygen as the terminal oxidant and that have the qualities needed for industrial applications (e.g. catalysts which can deliver high turnover numbers and can be easily separated from the products). We hope that this will lead to such catalysts being employed on a larger scale (which would be no small feat!). In the longer term we aim to tackle even more difficult problems, for example selective C-H bond activation and energy related challenges.

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

I think Richard Feynman would be an excellent choice; great conversation and who knows how and where the night would end!

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

Last week I ran a few experiments actually. During term time it is difficult to find time to run any experiments myself, but in the summer I can usually carry out the odd experiment. So recently I have been carrying out some preliminary experiments on some new copper catalysed dehydrogenation reactions.

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

This is a tricky one. In terms of books: Well I think a desert island could get pretty boring, so maybe some very difficult book which would keep me busy/puzzled for years, like Kant’s “Critique of Pure Reason”. On the other hand “100 Tasty Coconut Recipes” might be better. Again it is very hard to pick just one album to be “stuck with”, but for such a scenario perhaps “Echoes – The Best of Pink Floyd” would be a good choice as it would ensure that I am completely chilled out on this island.

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

Daniel Nocera at MIT. He is working in arguably one of the most important areas (solar splitting of water) and he delivers inspirational talks on his research and the challenges that we face regarding sustainable energy.