Reactions – Mary Cloninger


1. What made you want to be a chemist?

In my high school chemistry class, my lab partner and I took a small scoop of every reagent from every lab experiment and placed it in a beaker, which we hid in our supply cupboard. (I don’t know what came over us, and I am definitely NOT advocating this sort of behavior!) One day, the beaker began to exotherm and the lab began to fill with greenish brownish fumes. Rather than placing me in detention, my teacher required a thorough analysis of what reactions were most likely the cause of the fumes. This assignment captured my interest and made me want to become a chemist.

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

Why would I want to be anything other than a chemist? Honestly, I have no idea what I would be if I couldn’t be a chemist. Probably, I’d try to do something that still allowed me to work with college students.

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

My PhD advisor, Dr. Howard Whitlock, once told me that he believes every one of us should find whatever it is that we are driven to do and pour our energy into succeeding in that area. I would add that, as chemists, we have a responsibility to focus our scientific endeavors toward problems of societal relevance. As educators, it is our responsibility to provide an encouraging learning environment and to try to combat the scientific illiteracy that is so prevalent in our culture.

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

I’d like to spend an evening with Dr Albert Schweitzer because I think I could learn a lot about how to be a better person from him. If I could meet with a fictional character, then I would probably pick Don Quixote. An evening with Quixote would surely teach me how to see the best in everyone and how to always stand up for what I believe is right (even when other people think that I am just fighting windmills!).

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

A few months ago, I added t-butyl lithium to a reaction for one of my students. This was a large-scale reaction, and the student was nervous. I have always felt that I should never ask a student to do something that I am not willing to do myself. However, I broke the syringe (never a good outcome with t-BuLi is involved!), and none of my students have asked for help since then. A few weeks ago, I purified a compound using size exclusion chromatography for a collaborator in the physics department. My students won’t let me touch their compounds very often, but they still allow me to do occasional work for collaborators.

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

At first, I thought I’d bring along “How to Survive when Exiled on a Desert Island.” However, I am sure that I won’t be good at things like starting fires by scraping rocks together and hunting for my own food with handmade weapons. Since I’m not even sure the survival guide will be enough for me, I have decided that I will bring the bible. My best chance of survival, on a deserted island, will be through prayer.

Since no one else will be there, I’ll be able to sing as loud and as off-key as I want. I’ll bring along “One Fair Summer Evening” by Nanci Griffith, and I’ll sing so loud the animals will figure out how to make sure someone rescues me right away.

Mary Cloninger is in the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry at Montana State University and works on multivalent protein-carbohydrate interactions and other challenges in glycobiology and carbohydrate synthesis.

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