Reactions – Julie MacPherson

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1. What made you want to be a chemist?

From an early age I was always really interested in my surroundings, what made things work they way they do, why was the sky blue, that sort of thing, so it was no surprise to me or my parents that I really took to studying the sciences at school — especially after having to have my bedroom carpet replaced after getting burning hot solder on the surface whilst attempting to make a very crude electronic organ! I knew I would end up doing something that revolved around science, but it wasn’t until I was doing my PhD that I actually thought that I would be good enough to be an academic. I actually had a tough time deciding whether to study physics and chemistry at university (as I really enjoyed them both) but as it turns out, even though I opted for chemistry with research crossing many boundaries, these days I actually dabble a fair bit in both physics and biology, which really suits me.

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

I think I would like to do something that engages the more artistic side of my personality. I am a very visual person and creative art can be very powerful, emotive and engaging, so a photographic career has always appealed to me. On the days I really let my imagination run wild I would have loved to try my hand at sculpture. A long time ago I started writing a non-scientific novel but never got the time to see it to completion so I will never know if a literary career was for me!

3. How can chemists best contribute to the world at large?

I think there are many ways — one of my main roles I believe is as an educator to instill the drive for knowledge and learning in the next generation of students and show them how to think creatively and importantly how to research. Obviously, of equal importance is the research we do, which is crucial and can have a tremendous impact on current issues — for example the production of medicines for the diseases that blight our society, finding new materials that will offer alternative solutions to the energy crisis.

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

I suppose I should be expected to suggest a scientist but actually the person I would like to meet most is Auguste Rodin. His sculptures are truly amazing they convey so much emotion in the human form. I often find with art that the more you know about the person that created the work the more you truly understand and appreciate as so much of themselves is embodied in the created object. That statement is probably also true of most scientists.

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

I try and go into the laboratory most days as this is the part of the job I most enjoy, seeing the experiments in action, discussing the results with the students. However, I haven’t done my own experiment (from start to finish) for a few years now, but I am no stranger to getting my hands dirty and the students will often find me fixing a piece of equipment or helping them out with an experiment. I always tell them doing a PhD is one of the best times of your scientific career as you get to focus on one thing with no distractions

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

I think the book I would take is Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy — I remember first reading this when I was in my early twenties and never got past the “Inferno” as they were so many messages within messages that it took me ages to work out all the hidden meanings and symbolism, so I was left with Dante and Virgil waiting to enter purgatory. On a desert island with the time allowed hopefully I would be able to pass through purgatory to paradise to finally meet Dante’s Beatrice. The CD is a bit trickier as I have a really wide musical tastes, so I could take a number, but Moby’s Play might keep my spirits uplifted.

Julie Macpherson is in the Department of Chemistry at the University of Warwick, and works on the development and application of new imaging techniques and carbon-based materials for sensing applications.