Reactions – Daniel O’Leary

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1. What made you want to be a chemist?

I entered college wanting to be a biology major and took two years of introductory chemistry to satisfy the biology degree requirements. I then had a fantastic summer undergraduate research experience and learned how to study a biological system with nuclear magnetic resonance. That project solidified my interest in biology and showed me that if you really want to get to the bottom of a biological process, then you had to understand the chemical factors at play. Majoring in chemistry was a logical next step.

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

I have a cousin who works for the Alaska department of fish and game. He spends many of his days outdoors and on the water, conducting surveys of fish and shellfish populations. For a person with my eating habits, this job would be the equivalent of a kid working in a candy store-except that it involves SCUBA diving, so you get to stay in shape and see beautiful sights!

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

This is a no-brainer-we need to figure out how to power the planet with processes that don’t use fossil fuels. As this problem won’t be solved overnight, chemical educators need to realize that it’s the kids sitting in the lecture hall who will solve this problem, not us. We need to inspire them to join the effort.

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

The Oregon distance runner Steve Prefontaine. Why? He was all about hard work, dedication to the cause, mental and physical toughness, teamwork, and friendship. His talent electrified the nation and helped inspire the running boom of the 1970’s. The evening would start off with 400 repeats on Hayward Field and be followed with a nice meal and quite a few beers. I’ve been searching for a good reason to get back in shape, and this would probably do it.

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

Just this past week, I spent some time working with a student on the NMR spectrometer. In a collaboration with Scott Miller’s group at Yale, we are trying to determine the solution conformation of a peptide with interesting catalytic activities. One of the reasons why I decided to teach and do research at a primarily undergraduate college is that I enjoy being in the lab and work closely with students.

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

I’d want to start my exile with some laughs and memories from a prior life, so the book would be Richard Russo’s Straight Man. The CD would be recordings of the collected speeches of John F. Kennedy. I figure that getting out of exile would quickly rise to the top of my ‘to do’ list, so I would not want to sit around listening to music. Kennedy’s speeches get my adrenaline flowing and I would need bursts of energy to live my new life in a Bear Gryllsian manner. If my attempts to get off the island fail, then I would sit on a rock and repeat, from memory, Kennedy’s “Radio and Television Report to the American People on the Soviet Arms Buildup in Cuba.” There’s a lot of good scolding in that speech, and something tells me that I would be in a scolding mood if I couldn’t get off the island!

Daniel O’Leary is in the Department of Chemistry at Bowdoin College and uses NMR spectroscopy and synthetic organic chemistry to study hydrogen bonding and aspects of peptide conformation.