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17.12.2008


Interview: Fast cars, skydiving, new catalytic concepts...



15 December 2008



Joanne Thomson asks: are there no barriers to Scott Denmark's adventures?









Scott Denmark Scott Denmark is professor of chemistry at the University of Illinois at Urbana, US. His research interests are in structural, synthetic and mechanistic organic chemistry. Scott is a member of the Chemical Communications advisory board.

 


Why did you decide to become a chemist?


I am one of the children of the Sputnik generation. Chemistry sets were very popular and my parents bought me a Gilbert set when I was eight. I was fascinated by it. I would sit in my basement for hours on end doing experiments. My laboratory grew from that little set to a full blown laboratory when I was in high school. It was at a time when anyone could buy chemicals from chemical stores. I remember carrying bottles of nitric and sulphuric acid on the bus back from a nearby town. It wasn't until I went to university that I learned that you could actually have a career as a scientist in academia. 


When I was 11, my dad took me to the World Fair in New York. DuPont had an exposition called 'Better living through chemistry'. It showed some amazing futuristic materials. It captivated me and I knew at that point that I wanted to be a chemist. I loved the life, the freedom and the ability to explore your own curiosity. 


My parents had no clue about chemistry. Neither of them is college educated but they nurtured my interest and put up with a lot. I caused all kinds of havoc in my basement but they tolerated it because they saw I was passionate about it and it kept me off the streets. They probably worried that I was a little antisocial because I spent all my time doing chemistry. 


Your research is primarily concerned with the invention of new synthetic reactions. What are you working on at the moment?



"I have created a new paradigm for catalysis that is different from transition metal, Lewis acid, enzymatic or organocatalysis"

It has been a continuous inspiration to find new ways of using the periodic table's versatility to create new kinds of chemical reactivity. I have come up with a fundamental new concept of how one does catalysis. There is a vast world of interesting chemistry that is characteristic of the main group elements that I think has been overlooked in terms of catalysis. I have created a new paradigm for catalysis that is different from transition metal, Lewis acid, enzymatic or organocatalysis. It is going to be uniquely applicable to the interesting chemistry in the main group. We are busily demonstrating our proof of principle for that concept. 


What's hot in organic chemistry?


Naturally what I am doing! If I didn't think it was hot, then I should not be doing it. Other than that, I find the work of one of my colleagues, Jeff Moore, really fascinating. He is involved in an area called mechanochemistry, which is the use of mechanical energy to induce or control chemical reactions. It is fundamental physical organic chemistry that has tremendous applications in the real world. It could be used to induce materials to repair themselves under stress, which I think is just brilliant.


What scientific discovery would you like to have been responsible for?


Pasteur's work on chirality. I would love to have been the person to have made the conceptual connection between molecular dissymmetry and optical rotation. It was one of the most beautiful experiments in chemistry.


What are the major barriers to scientific research at present?


Money, money, money. The overall funding environment in the US is deteriorating. Like never before in my 28 year career, I am feeling real pressure that I am not going to be able to maintain the level of funding that I am used to. I have always enjoyed a lot of industrial support in addition to federal support and that has almost evaporated. Companies are under huge financial pressures and extramural funding is the first to be cut. 


In my early days, if asked about what limits me, I would say just my own imagination. But now I have more ideas than I have the money for.


Do you have any advice for young chemists?



"In that talent pool of young people, there is no shortage of intelligence, creativity, drive, ambition and willingness to work hard. What is missing from the equation is people asking themselves: 'What problem do I want to solve?'"

Be cognisant that you need to create your own identity. In that talent pool of young people, there is no shortage of intelligence, creativity, drive, ambition and willingness to work hard. What is missing from the equation is people asking themselves: 'What problem do I want to solve?' Separate yourself sufficiently from your mentors and think carefully because you're going to invest so much of your own lifetime and energy into your work. You want to make sure that it has impact and will make a real difference and change the way people think about chemistry. You have to really transform the science. 


You have won a number of awards throughout your career, including the Pedler Medal from the Royal Society of Chemistry. How important is it to you to receive such recognition of your efforts?


It was important early on in my career because I wanted to feel that my efforts were appreciated. It is less important now because I have reached a level of achievement where I am pretty happy. I know that there is an appreciation of what I do and how I do it. That doesn't mean to say that there aren't awards that I would still like to have. 


You are a fan of fast cars and regularly take part in road races. What is it that attracts you to this sport? 


I am very competitive and techy. The combination of engineering, technology and adrenaline is an amazing drug. When I am not racing my car, I am riding one of several very fast motorcycles. I've also jumped out of aeroplanes. I get a real adrenaline rush from speed, danger and challenge. The car has all these features to it but it also is a highly refined skill - it takes a lot of training, discipline and a competitive nature. 


You get to travel all over the world with your work. Do you have a favourite destination?


I have a special place in my heart for Switzerland because I spent five years there as a graduate student. I love going back because it is a part of me and it also is a gorgeous country. I also enjoy going to Japan. I find it really fascinating. I like the remarkable juxtaposition of an extremely deep and unique history with an ultra modern society that has been created since the end of World War II. I am intrigued by how the Japanese architects and builders reinvented Japan - they had the ability to create something in the harmony that ancient Japan is associated with but with very modern materials and with a modern picture of what a city is supposed to look like. And I love the food - I am very adventurous. Sometimes I think that some of the things they serve are a gag on foreigners. Bacteria, fungi, fermented soy.I don't even thing that the Japanese like to eat some of the things. The last time I was there I met up with an old Japanese post doc who took me out to have raw horse meat. I couldn't stop thinking about Mr Ed!


What would you be if you weren't a chemist?


Naturally, a Formula One race car driver!  But, if I could start my career again, I would study neuroscience. I would love to decipher the molecular basis of memory and cognition. 



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