1. What made you want to be a chemist?
I was always fascinated by nature as a child. I studied lake water and plants with a microscope, spent a lot of nights outside watching stars, built small electric circuits and, of course, I had a small chemistry lab in our cellar. I enjoyed all these experiments and what they told me about nature. Later in school I had a very good chemistry teacher who encouraged me to take part in the International Chemistry Olympiad (an international competition for high school kids). The first time I totally failed in our national selection rounds. But I guess that finally tipped the balance towards chemistry. I got ambitious and the more I got involved with chemistry, the more I loved it.
2. If you weren’t a chemist and could do any other job, what would it be – and why?
Most likely a medical doctor. As a teenager I started to work as a voluntary paramedic and I still do it from time to time. Being able to help people is a very gratifying job, even though it is a very tough job with a lot of responsibility. So I guess if chemistry or natural sciences were not my profession I would have ended up in medicine. Although as a child, to become a cook was also tempting for me. I still love to cook, even though I am probably not as skilled in the kitchen as I am in the chemistry lab.
3. How can chemists best contribute to the world at large?
First, as Ronald Breslow once put it, chemistry is the central science. Everything that goes on around us is somehow linked to chemistry. The more and more we learn about the molecular basis of life itself, the development of diseases or the function of drugs on a molecular level or how material properties depend on their molecular composition, the better we will be able to improve our life and deal with the upcoming challenges threatening our planet. Second, chemistry is the only natural science that not only tries to understand what is going on around us but also is capable to create. We can make new molecules, that never existed before; new molecules with new and much desired properties. Chemists create new drugs in order to improve our life and health. Chemists create new materials with improved properties for thousands of applications in our modern world. Chemistry can help to solve so many problems we are facing today: energy crisis, food and water supply, health issues or environmental challenges just to name a few.
4. Which historical figure would you most like to have dinner with – and why?
Leonardo da Vinci. He was probably the most fascinating scientist that ever lived on our planet. It is amazing how much this one person accomplished and in how many different disciplines and fields: arts and sciences, chemistry and physics, medicine and biology, architecture and engineering and many more. He invented so many things that we still use today, even though in a modified and improved version, but still essentially going back to his ideas. And he achieved all this under really challenging and also sometimes life-threatening political circumstances.
5. When was the last time you did an experiment in the lab – and what was it?
Well, that was quite some time ago at least in terms of real scientific research. It was about six years ago when I just started my own academic career and when I had only three coworkers who just started to work with me for their diploma. It was a five-step synthesis of one of the building blocks, a guanidiniocarbonyl pyrrole derivative, we need for our research. Unfortunately, I do not have any time for lab research myself any more. And I guess by now my coworkers are much more skilled in the lab than I am due to lack of practice. However, I organize a chemistry day for high school students once a year. And on that day I also present some experiments like the classical nylon synthesis or gun cotton. It is always a “big show” also for my coworkers to see me in lab coat again and doing experiments.
6. If exiled on a desert island, what one book and one CD would you take with you?
Is there a book, how to make coffee from coconuts? That would be my first choice. Otherwise, perhaps the New York City telephone directory. That has so many pages which are good for making fire. As for a CD, does a CD player run on coconut oil? To be more serious, I could read the Lord of the Rings again and again, and a CD with music from Andrew Lloyd Webber would be nice.
Carsten Schmuck is in the Institute of Organic Chemistry at the University of Würzburg and works on supramolecular chemistry and its application in bioorganic chemistry (e.g., development of drugs and sensors) and material sciences (e.g., self-assembled nanostructures).