Reactions – Duncan Bruce


1. What made you want to be a chemist?

My inspiration was the man who taught me for four years at Trinity School, Carlisle – Mike Fossey. He showed me the beauty, breadth and logic that underpins chemistry and made me realise what an exciting subject it is. It was a real thrill some years later to send him a paper published with another of his ex-pupils who carried out an undergraduate project with me in Sheffield.

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

Ancient history always fascinated me – an academic career in that direction would be a possible alternative.

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

This list is long, as chemistry has a unique ability to permeate so many aspects of our lives. However, perhaps the biggest challenges that the world faces at present relate to energy. We need new and renewable sources, we need to use it more efficiently, and we need to find viable ways to store it and also to store newer fuel sources such as hydrogen. Chemists are central to these issues and their creativity can make a real impact.

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

Nelson Mandela. To endure the imprisonment and then to come out and lead with such wisdom, taking such a major place on the world stage and in the hearts of so many people, means for me that there would be so much to learn from him. And from what I have seen through the media, he would be terrifically good company.

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

I am in the lab quite often working with members of my group on the identification of liquid crystal phases by optical microscopy. However, in terms of ‘rolling up my sleeves’ and doing a reaction, the answer is ‘rather recently’. Listened to a visiting seminar speaker and went to the lab the same afternoon to make something prompted by one of his slides. Simple reaction – acidify to dissolve the base in water and then co-precipitate. Now all we need to do is get it pure, find out what it does and get a crystal structure…

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

I tend to read contemporary authors such as Ian McEwan, Sebastian Faulks, Louis de Bernières and Peter Carey. However while it is something that I have read only recently, I would take Suite Française by Irène Némirovsky. So much has been written about this book, yet its sheer humanity and observation of the human condition would bear reading over and over again. Music is much more difficult. My tastes are diverse from baroque through romantics and Shostakovich to 60s/70s rock and the present day. However, for its ability to move and stir emotion, Beethoven’s 9th Symphony would probably be my choice with his Violin Concerto (which reminds me of the English Lake District) a close second. However, any CD would have to be homemade, as I’d need Debussy’s Deux Arabesques No. 1 played by Pascal Rogé and Stairway to Heaven, too.

Duncan Bruce is in the Department of Chemistry at the University of York and works on various aspects of materials chemistry, with a strong emphasis on liquid crystals.

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