David Schilter studied in Australia, the United States and South Korea before making the move to London, where he now serves as Associate Editor for Nature Reviews Chemistry.
1. What made you want to be a chemist?
I found high school science experiments to be kind of fun. Getting decent grades in chemistry didn’t hurt my enthusiasm either; fast forward to undergraduate lab, and I’ve got this black ooze in my flask. I complained to my teaching assistant—a certain Mr. (now Prof.) Nilay Hazari— “I don’t know if this slime is the right stuff, I just wish my eyes could see the structure of this compound”. His response: “If that’s the way you think then chemistry isn’t for you.” Far from being discouraged, I now try to visualize—using equal parts experience and imagination—what’s going on in any material I set my eyes on. So I ended up being a chemist after all. And what of the black ooze? Well, that mysteriously transformed into shiny crystals of the product, of course.
2. If you weren’t a chemist and could do any other job, what would it be—and why?
I fancy some cooking, although my enthusiasm for that probably exceeds my skill (perhaps to the disappointment of any dinner guests). But isn’t a chef just a chemist anyway? Or perhaps it’s the other way around. In any case my real answer is that I’d be a yoga instructor (I wouldn’t go so far as to use the word ‘guru’). I do enjoy teaching and leading an active lifestyle, for which yoga is perfect. Ommmmmm….but I’d still want to be a chemist on the side.
3. What are you working on now, and where do you hope it will lead?
I just joined the editorial team at Nature Reviews Chemistry, a journal that doesn’t exist yet! Having said that, Nat. Rev. Chem. will open with a bang in 2017, showcasing high-visibility articles on all sorts of interesting chemistry. My hope is that this will be the go-to forum for experts and non-specialists alike to learn from our fantastic and diverse authors.
4. Which historical figure would you most like to have dinner with—and why?
That would have to be Alexandre Yersin. Raised in Europe and trained by Louis Pasteur, Yersin was a prolific microbiologist, physician and all-round polymath who traversed much of Europe and Asia as a doctor aboard a ship. Along the way he treated the poor, mapped unchartered jungles of Indochina, and just happened to discover the bacterium responsible for the bubonic plague: the eponymous Yersinia pestis. All this before settling in Vietnam, where he spread his scientific acumen while manufacturing quinine (as well as a certain ‘reinvigorating’ cocaine-containing soft drink that went unpatented…). Yersin’s ‘biography’ Plague and Cholera, penned by Patrick Deville, is a must-read.
More than worthy of an honorable mention is Charles Pedersen, also a man of the world, and one that I—as a Eurasian and a synthetic chemist—have long wished to emulate.
5. When was the last time you did an experiment in the lab—and what was it?
A month ago I prepared a nickel complex I had designed as an electrocatalyst.
6. If exiled on a desert island, what one book and one music album would you take with you?
The book is a no-brainer: On Writing by Stephen King is both hilarious and educational. I might still be an awful writer, but I’d be an even more awful writer had a friend of mine not gifted me this gem a few years back. As for music, Disintegration by The Cure is pretty damn near perfect. It is a little dark though, so I might cheat and also take Riot on an Empty Street by Kings of Convenience.
7. Which chemist would you like to see interviewed on Reactions—and why?
Emeritus Professor Leonard Lindoy is a great friend of mine and a font of arcane knowledge. I could retell here many of his stories, but you’d do much better by going straight to the source.