Reactions – Rory Waterman

1. What made you want to be a chemist?

Organic chemistry, ironically enough. I was studying biology and had taken general chemistry, which I did not find terribly exciting. It was organic chemistry that really put the idea forward that chemists can make molecules, and the idea of making molecules, particularly ones never seen before, has been driving me ever since.

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

If I were not a chemist, something else I’d like to be. If I were not a chemist, a window cleaner, me! With a rub-a-dub-dub…In all seriousness, that is a tough call. It’s funny because my job is a professor, but when I meet people and they ask what I do, I instinctively answer chemist, so it’d be hard to that up give up. I think I’d have to go to culinary school and become a chef. That seems like another profession that combines creativity and the making of new things. As a plus, it would be easier to explain to people what I do.

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

Chemistry has already made tremendous contributions, but it is no time for the science to rest on its laurels. Currently, energy is an area where chemistry can make a major contribution — one that is desperately needed. From more efficient processes and green syntheses to new technologies for better harnessing the sun’s energy to carbon dioxide remediation, these are all chemical problems. That’s not to say that chemistry would not make a large impact on many other areas, but energy crises are and will be sufficiently pressing to demand precedence. Ultimately, most of these energy problems are fundamentally about making and breaking chemical bonds or building new molecules.

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

I’m not a big fan of this going to dinner with historical figures. It seems like a formula for disappointment. However, it would be fun to talk coordination chemistry with Alfred Werner. More than that, it would be wild to share with him some of what we have learned since that time and get his reaction.

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

This morning, I finished brominating an arene and then I protected an amine to build some new ligands, but that is all known chemistry. Not too long ago, I made a new nickel complex that we’re hoping will be a good bond-forming catalyst. It turns out that I can make the nickel complexes, but I don’t know about the catalysis yet.

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

The CD would be an easy choice — Duran Duran’s Greatest. The book is a little more difficult. Given the amount of time “exiled” implies, I’d go with Thus Spoke Zarathustra by Nietzsche. It’d be a good foil for the Duran Duran. I wonder what I did to get exiled…maybe reading James Marshall’s George and Martha: The Complete Stories of Two Best Friends will help me be readmitted to society….

Rory Waterman is in the Department of Chemistry at the University of Vermont, where he uses organometallic chemistry to address problems in synthesis, materials, and energy.