Reactions – Zachary Aron

Zachary Aron is in the Department of Chemistry at Indiana University, Bloomington, and works on the development of molecular assembly lines as versatile tools for chemical synthesis.

1. What made you want to be a chemist?

I’ve always wanted to be a scientist — the world around me fascinates me, and I’ve always wanted to look closer… But that doesn’t really answer the question, does it? My first inkling that chemistry was the right science came in high school under the gifted tutelage of Frank Cardulla, who helped me to understand that chemistry was the only science where you could really grasp what you are doing with a truly satisfying level of detail. Biology, despite its awesome power and the amazing advances of the past decades, is still too much of a mystery. Physics is so understood that you need detailed equations between you and the science, making it too distant. Chemistry… ah, chemistry, now thats a science you can sink your teeth right into. We can almost picture the molecules in our heads. We can predict their flow and motion. We can finesse them together and we can make them flow — how could it not have been chemistry?

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

That’s an easy one. Anyone who knows me can probably guess — when I walk into a party, I typically greet the dogs and cats before I notice the people. If I couldn’t be a chemist, I would be a veterinarian. Making sick pets healthy and keeping them happy would make my day. Helping them move on to a place of less pain would hurt, but the help I could give would really balance it all out.

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

At the moment, our laboratory is focused on the development of new synthetic methodologies with the long-term goal of applying them in complex molecule syntheses. One focus is the development of biomimetic catalysts that activate amines in a manner similar to that of pyridoxal-5’-phosphate (PLP). Our hope is to identify a simple and accessible class of organocatalysts capable of dramatically simplifying the way chemists work with amine-containing compounds; eliminating protecting groups and accelerating chemical synthesis. We hope that this work will simplify the industrial synthesis of amine-containing compounds and broaden access to unusual derivatives of biologically active natural products.

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

John Muir. I’ve spent a great deal of time exploring the landscape of the American wilderness and have always been struck by its beauty. John Muir was the powerful voice that pushed to protect so much of what we still have — I’d love to thank him. I’d also like to hear a few of his stories, his experiences in the wild would be remarkable to the point of legend.

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

Gosh, not that long ago (can’t be specific, my fiance might be reading this…). What was the experiment? The answer is a bit embarrassing… the last experiment I ran in the laboratory was a follow-up to a reaction that had gone south on me: when running a simple Schiff-base formation, I had gotten a quantitative yield of an unanticipated product (you’ll see this paper soon enough); anyway, the last experiment was a follow-up that changed the pH of the system to successfully make the desired Schiff-base without any more shenanigans.

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

The music album: New Moon, by Charlie Ortman — when exiled, the first thing I would miss would be my family, so an album by my uncle would at least be a soothing reminder of home.

The book: Hmmm… that’s a hard one; I’m a voracious reader, and there are few books I can think of that would both interest me and last any period of time. Possibly 100 Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez since its a book that one often becomes lost and confused when reading. However, much like the album, I’m gonna need comfort food when stranded on a desert island, so it would most likely be Dune by Frank Herbert — an amazing book with strong links to my childhood.

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

Matthais Brewer at University of Vermont — to be honest, he’s a good friend and I’d be curious to see his answers to these questions! Plus his work with diazonium salts has long fascinated me, placing a renewed emphasis on an old but important field.