1. What made you want to be a chemist?
As a teenager I developed a fascination with the way that complicated things grow when simple rules collide – in science, in music, in language… I originally planned to be a molecular biologist, and switched to chemistry once I met organic mechanisms in the first year of university. The way that mechanistic explanations apply equally in flasks and in cells intrigued me. I found the freedom of the constructive nature of chemistry – the way you can write a structure on paper and then plan how to make the molecule in the lab – very appealing too. I spend a lot of my time now trying to bend those same mechanistic rules to see when they break.
2. If you weren’t a chemist and could do any other job, what would it be – and why?
I’d grow things and cook them: the life of an Edwardian gentleman farmer – maybe circa 1910, perhaps in Norfolk – appeals: a modest estate with distant views of the sea, large greenhouses and well-stocked vegetable gardens…
3. What are you working on now, and where do you hope it will lead?
The fastest moving area in my group right now is finding ways of controlling molecular shape over long distances – we think this could lead us into making a new class of artificial receptors and allow us to develop signalling systems for use on the nanometre scale. We also working with compounds of lithium and carbon – in certain solvents these do really counterintuitive things, which allow us to make drug-like molecules unexpectedly easily.
4. Which historical figure would you most like to have dinner with – and why?
The 7th and 8th century Saxon period of English history is remarkable for what it now underpins. Bede – the 8th century scientist, musician, private investigator, historian, controversial theologian, traveller and writer who chronicled the development of society at that time – would be a fascinating dinner guest.
5. When was the last time you did an experiment in the lab – and what was it?
The Ritter reaction of acetonitrile is a great way of making hindered amines. It has to be tended at <5 °C or it exotherms alarmingly. All was going well until the phone rang. I came back to find my students trying to contain a fumehood filling up with black, sticky polymeric foam. Sadly running a research group is more or less incompatible with competent bench chemistry.
6. If exiled on a desert island, what one book and one music album would you take with you?
The World According to Garp by John Irving. There’s so much of life, in all its generous messiness, shoehorned into it. Mahler’s 2nd symphony likewise, but I’d couple it with the shattered beauty of Berg’s Violin Concerto.
7. Which chemist would you like to see interviewed on Reactions?