Reactions – Cameron Neylon

1. What made you want to be a chemist?

I actually spent a lot of time trying to get away from chemistry as an undergraduate. My undergraduate major is actually biochemistry and the only reason I carried chemistry through to third year was I hated microbiology even more. I then did a PhD in a chemistry department, a postdoc, in a chemistry department, and ended up with a Lectureship at Southampton Chemistry, before moving to the STFC ISIS Neutron Scattering Facility, which has a strong history in physical chemistry. So it took me a while to appreciate the importance of chemistry to what I was trying to do and the things I was interested in.

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

I nearly did music rather than science at university and I still definitely miss the fact that I don’t have the time to dedicate to being much better than I am at the music I am involved with. Really I’d just like to be able to devote more time to learning more about the things that I find interesting or fun but are not right at the core of what I need to be doing right now. Given a completely free choice, and unlimited funds, I’d probably go back to being a student!

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

By doing what they’re best at – chemistry, and helping to frame the big issues facing science and the world in chemical terms. Chemistry remains central to almost everything we do, and an awful lot of what we need to do in terms of climate, the environment, energy, and health. But at the same time there is a lot of complacency in the community and a lack of interest in engaging with the way the development of science and technology are changing. Chemistry has a great future, but I worry about how much of that future is going to be in chemistry departments. Chemists need to stake a claim to being at the heart of solving important problems or there is the risk of just turning into a service department.

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

Far too hard! There are quite enough people I’d like to meet who are still alive. I think it would be fascinating to talk to Haldane about science and society or any of the 19th century scientists who were the last generation to have a good grasp of what was happening in the full range of science fields.

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

You can tell exactly when I was last in the lab and what I was doing by looking at my lab book online. The most recent thing at the time of writing was a deceptively simple-looking experiment where I was seeing whether a simple approach to measuring the solubility of compounds in organic solvents would work well or not. This was done with Jean-Claude Bradley from Drexel University as part of the setup for an Open Notebook Science challenge where we are trying to crowdsource the collection of solubility data. The idea is that students anywhere in the world can contribute by developing or improving methods for determining solubility and placing the data and methods online as they are developed so that the data are freely accessible. I still manage to get into the lab reasonably regularly. Whether it does any good or not you’d have to ask my research group…

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

If I was exiled on a desert island I would go mad. One book and one CD would be unlikely to help all that much so I guess I would go for the longest thing I could find. The full OED perhaps, you can still get that compact edition I think with nine pages condensed onto one. CD would probably be one I’ve had for ages, with the Berlin Philharmonic playing Pictures at an Exhibition and the Rite of Spring. That or Sky’s second album – but I don’t think that was ever released on CD…

Cameron Neylon has joint appointments at the Science and Technology Facilities Council Rutherford Appleton Laboratory and the School of Chemistry at Southampton University, and works on too many different things ranging from analysis of high throughput DNA sequencing approaches, through methodology development for biophysics and structural biology, to the design and development of web based systems for recording what happens in experimental laboratories.