1. What made you want to be a chemist?
When I was ten or so I met one of my uncles who was a chemical engineer. We started talking about chemistry a bit, and he drew some structures of organic molecules. I became entranced by the variety of structures one could build up from carbon, hydrogen, oxygen and nitrogen, and started drawing new structures in my notebook. The capability of chemists to plug components together both covalently and non-covalently to create new things is what continues to move me as a scientist.
2. If you weren’t a chemist and could do any other job, what would it be – and why?
I’d be a chef! I have a good ability in “visualizing” what various combinations of flavors and textures will produce in the finished product. Cooking also provides me with an outlet for all of the synthetic skills I honed prior to becoming a faculty member – plus my success ratio is way higher in cooking. My wife (a rather picky soul) has only complained of one meal in the last ten years, and that’s because she’s morally opposed to pineapple in savoury foods.
3. How can chemists best contribute to the world at large?
We have a unique viewpoint, centered at the atomic level. As synthetic chemists, we can control the structures of molecules with atomic resolution, giving us the ability to create typical “chemicals” such as drugs, household products, etc. Beyond this, however, our ability to manipulate matter and understand its behavior at this Angstrom scale puts us in a unique position to contribute to the worlds of materials and nanotechnology.
4. Which historical figure would you most like to have dinner with – and why?
Mozart – he is a man that had a fairly tough life but made magic look so easy.
5. When was the last time you did an experiment in the lab – and what was it?
Today, when I ran a few electrochemical experiments with Mike Pollier, one of my graduate students. The group gets uncomfortable when I try to do things around lab, but some things are “safe”.
6. If exiled on a desert island, what one book and one CD would you take with you?
As far as the book goes, a quick Google search would suggest “Boatbuilding: A Complete Handbook of Wooden Boat Construction” by Howard Irving Chapelle as a rather good idea. For the CD I’d go with Mozart’s Le Nozze de Figaro. A bonus would be to have either Cecillia Bartoli or Frederica von Stade (very different but both beautiful voices) as Cherubino…
Vince Rotello is in the Department of Chemistry at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst and works on interfacing nanosystems for biological and materials applications.