1. What made you want to be a chemist?
For almost as long as I can remember, I’ve loved math and applying math to understanding the physical world. I grew up near Woods Hole, MA, which meant that there were high-quality local science fairs and “real scientists” as judges. My experiences of designing and performing independent science projects whet my appetite for science research. My interest in chemistry started in high school, where I had two very good chemistry teachers. However, I didn’t know many chemists, and I never really considered a career in chemistry.
As an undergraduate at Harvard, I gravitated towards the chemistry major, somewhat through a process of elimination. In my Junior year, I worked in the labs of Prof. George Whitesides, and was amazed at the breadth of interesting projects going on in his lab, and the range of activities in which he was involved. This was my first real exposure to university research chemistry, and I was hooked! The idea of being able to solve difficult and interesting real-world problems using a scientific discipline — chemistry — appealed to me very much. It also appealed to me to “spend the rest of my life in school” and to have opportunities to travel widely, and to make friends and pursue scientific collaborations around the world. And, even as a college student, it seemed great to be able to pursue problems of one’s choosing, and to have very little oversight in the form of a boss. I had so much fun doing chemistry research in college that it became clear to me that I should continue. I applied to chemistry graduate school and found a great mentor in Prof. Harry Gray at Caltech, who inspired me to pursue a career in chemistry.
2. If you weren’t a chemist and could do any other job, what would it be – and why?
I would love to try many different careers, but one of my first loves was baseball. I think it would be fun to be a Major League baseball pitcher. I played Little League as a kid, and always particularly looked forward to game days when I was pitching. The pitcher has the opportunity to control the outcome of the game, and time slows down when you’re on the mound. I love the feeling of needing to make every pitch count, and all of the mental challenges of trying to compete and win. In the off-season, baseball players also have the opportunity to do a lot of good in their communities.
3. How can chemists best contribute to the world at large?
That’s a great question. One of the things I love most about a career in chemistry is how many different doors it opens. Indeed, chemistry is great training for many undertakings. The general public forgets, I think, that science can be a wealth- and health-creating enterprise. Chemists have improved the lives of millions of people by developing new drugs, and chemists have created many thriving companies. Chemists are also great educators—of students in the classroom and citizens at large. Many university presidents are chemists, perhaps due to the administrative aspects of running a lab. Collectively, chemists can do a lot of good by designing new drugs, new materials, and new processes that will make the world a cleaner, healthier, and more sustainable place, and in the process employ millions of people. But, the world also desperately needs chemistry representatives to go into politics, and fill positions at the highest levels of government. The planet is facing major challenges in energy and healthcare, and chemists must take the lead in addressing these problems, both individually and collectively.
4. Which historical figure would you most like to have dinner with – and why?
I love studying history, particularly the history of science. I think it would be wonderful to have dinner with Albert Einstein, and get some insight into how he observed the world and solved problems. It also seems like he had a great sense of humor, and I suspect the dinner would be very entertaining.
5. When was the last time you did an experiment in the lab – and what was it?
I occasionally perform experiments using my lab’s confocal microscope. For example, I’ve done some experiments recently that involve developing a fluorescent probe to study how anesthetics work. Research is great fun, but I find that it can be frustrating when I don’t have much time to devote to it. I generally have more fun these days watching my graduate students and postdocs conduct experiments in lab. When things go well, I get to see lots of good data!
6. If exiled on a desert island, what one book and one CD would you take with you?
Assuming I didn’t need to learn a new language or unusual skills to survive, I would probably take a copy of Shakespeare’s complete works, as there would be a play for every occasion — sad, funny, historical, or strange. It’s unlikely that I would bring a CD. When I’m alone, I usually enjoy the peace and quiet. If I were in exile, it’s likely I would try to keep doing whatever it was that had led to my exile!