Reactions – Ross Kelly

Ross Kelly is in the Department of Chemistry at Boston College, and works on the synthesis of natural products and molecular devices (motors, brakes, etc.).

1. What made you want to be a chemist?

When I was growing up in the 1950s, chemistry sets still contained good stuff (like powdered magnesium) and even a twelve-year old could get the ingredients of gunpowder (sulfur, powdered charcoal and saltpeter) at the drug store no questions asked. Not surprisingly, rockets, bombs and homemade fireworks first hooked me on chemistry. While the inability to easily lay one’s hands on “dangerous” chemicals may make childhood safer these days, I fear that without the allure of “bangs and stinks” to grab them when they are young, fewer people will go into chemistry in the future.

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

I like designing and making things and I have spent my career designing and making molecules. But I expect I would have enjoyed designing and making other things instead. Being a mechanical engineer or a mechanic or machinist or maybe even a furniture maker (I design and build furniture as a hobby) appeal to me.

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

I answer this question at the risk of inflicting lame duck status on myself, since one is most commonly known by his research program. For the past five years or so I have been winding down my research effort. Fortunately, I did that when I had a choice, rather than now when the current funding crisis might have forced it on me. I will continue to teach organic chemistry to undergraduates, which I enjoy and seem to be good at.

A word to the (un?)wise: lecture demonstrations have fallen out of favor in organic chemistry, but the students really like them and they liven up the class. I do something nearly every class. “Demonstrations” don’t have to be a lot of work: projecting the lists of ingredients from various foods, drug store products, etc., or passing around samples of familiar odiferous chemicals are easy ways to connect with the real world.

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

Leonardo da Vinci and Linus Pauling are two that come to mind. Not even taking into account his art, Leonardo was phenomenally creative, and I find his engineering ideas fascinating. Pauling was amazingly smart and figured out so many things. I would like to hear him explain how he missed the structure of the double helix – he got so many other things right.

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

Most of us who end up in academia do so because we were unusually good in lab as grad students and postdocs. One of the ironies is that most of us then have to forsake what we enjoyed and what got us here. It has been a long time since I have done anything in lab except to occasionally show a technique to a student.

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

I like to read, so I would prefer to bring a bookcase (or a Kindle) full of books, but if I could only bring one book, it might be Dostoyevsky’s classic Crime and Punishment, but for a strange reason. Several times in my life I have started Crime and Punishment, but never gotten into it. If it were the only book on the island, I expect I would finally finish it.

I don’t spend all that much time listening to music, so I would much prefer bringing a radio-controlled model airplane to fly. Many people won’t understand, but I would find that more relaxing than listening to music.

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

That is a hard question. The ones that I would be most interested in (viz Emil Fischer) are dead, which makes for a tough interview.