1. What made you want to be a chemist?
When I was in high school in India, I wanted to be a physicist. Because, I thought, physics is logical. But, I did not score that well in physics in my high school finals. In the college that I was interested in attending, the faculty were more interested in admitting me in chemistry, because I scored very high in chemistry. I was okay with it, because of the possibility of doing physical chemistry. During the process, I had to take organic chemistry. I had a couple of great O-Chem teachers and I fell in love with the subject. I also recognized that this subject is likely to have a greater impact in people’s lives than any other. Therefore, I decided to pursue research in organic chemistry as my career.
2. If you weren’t a chemist and could do any other job, what would it be – and why?
A business consultant. When I was interviewing for my jobs, a friend of mine at Caltech dragged me to a presentation by a business consulting company. This friend then convinced me to apply for an interview. I did not even know how stocks and bonds worked (I still don’t!). When I went through the interview process, I thought the exercise was very interesting. However, I did not pursue this much, because I did not think that I would be happy with it in the long-run.
3. How can chemists best contribute to the world at large?
I think we owe it to the world to pick a problem that is of true societal interest. The current system leads us in to a mode of being a bit publication-crazy!! This is unfortunate!
4. Which historical figure would you most like to have dinner with – and why?
President Abdul Kalam, the past President of India. When I visited India during his presidency, I realized that he was the most influential president that modern India had. He truly transcended all the barriers that humans seem to build around them. Here is a Muslim man, who is a scientist, in a Hindu-majority country just captured the hearts of everyone. Most of the country wanted him to continue as a president. He walked away from it without regrets mentioning that he would like to spend time teaching.
5. When was the last time you did an experiment in the lab – and what was it?
Five years ago! I did a simple alkylation experiment to build a dendrimer; did not purify the molecule myself. Handed it over to my postdoctoral associate who was working on the project.
6. If exiled on a desert island, what one book and one CD would you take with you?
ArdhaShastra – Indian classic – never read it so far, always wanted to!
mp3 CD with the maximum number of classical songs in my native language, Tamil.
S. Thayumanavan (Thai) is in the Department of Chemistry at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst and works on the design and synthesis of macromolecules of interest at the interface of chemistry with materials science and biology.