Reactions – Donna Blackmond

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Donna Blackmond is currently in the Department of Chemistry at Imperial College London and will join the Department of Chemistry at The Scripps Research Institute in La Jolla, California, in February 2010. She works on kinetic aspects of asymmetric catalytic reactions and on developing models for the origin of biological homochirality.

1. What made you want to be a chemist?

A confession: I am not trained as a chemist, but as a chemical engineer! My father, who was an electrical engineer, thought all of his children should be engineers. I liked chemistry, but the “chemical” in engineering was as close as I got. Nearly a decade after finishing my PhD in Chemical Engineering, I learned organic chemistry on the job, when I worked at Merck. This job was truly the defining experience of my career, being challenged by the likes of Ed Grabowski and Paul Reider.

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

Either a neurosurgeon or a NASA physicist. After all, what I do now isn’t really brain surgery or rocket science, is it?

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

I recently had one of those “Eureka moment” ideas, which combines aspects of two of our models for the origin of biological homochirality in a way that might generalize the concepts. We hope it will lead to understanding how the single chirality of both amino acids and sugars came about, all in one fell swoop.

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

In science, it would be Jacobus Hendricus van’t Hoff, who made important fundamental and practical contributions to both physical chemistry and organic chemistry. And he had his share of skeptics early on in his career.

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

The work I do now has nothing to do with what I was trained to do as a student, so the lab is a challenge. When I was on sabbatical at Harvard in 2002 with Eric Jacobsen, the graduate students agreed to let me start a reaction – hydrolytic ring opening of epoxides – by injecting water into a septum cap reaction vial. But I ended up spilling water all over the reaction calorimeter, which was embarrassing because I was the one who was supposed to be teaching them how to use it.

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

Of course the book is the complete works of William Shakespeare (“I could be bounded in a nutshell and count myself a king of infinite space, were it not that I have bad dreams”).

The music would be a CD recording of my son Daniel singing and playing guitar and piano versions of his own songs (especially his signature “Remember to Forget”) and his best covers: Queen, Simon and Garfunkel, Newton Faulkner, Richard Shindell, and Karl Jenkins’ Adiemus vocal pieces (very eclectic tastes).

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

My former Merck colleague, Ed Grabowski, who taught me the definition of enantiomeric excess, and whose response to adversity is something I can learn from: when confronted with the news that a major drug candidate involving several years’ work had failed in clinical trials, Ed promptly treated himself to fois gras and a glass of Chateau d’Yquem.