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05.06.2009



Interview: Tactical thinking



04 June 2009



Hisashi Yamamoto is inspired by chess, Buddhism and food. Joanne Thomson finds out more


 









Hisashi Yamamoto is professor of chemistry at the University of Chicago, US, where his research group develops more versatile, selective and reactive catalysts for organic synthesis. He has received many awards in recognition of his work, including the Japan Academy Award in 2007 and the American Chemical Society Creativity Award in 2009.

 


Who or what inspired you to become a chemist?
There was a professional chess player, Kozo Masuda, I liked in Japan. He was very famous but died young. He always said: 'My life is to develop new tactics and strategies.' He invented something new in every game. He is my hero and so, like him, I try to do everything new and original.


When I started my degree I was lucky - I had the chance to work with extremely good chemists. I got my Batchelors degree with Professors Nozaki and Nyori. They were both my mentors. I then moved to the US and worked for Professor Corey. He was very helpful and influenced me a lot. Then I returned to Japan and worked with Professor Jiro Tsuji, a famous palladium chemist. I thank all these people.


Your work focuses on acid catalysis in organic synthesis. What drew you to this area of chemistry?
My target is to find chemical reactions that make molecules efficiently and selectively. I am also interested in asymmetric synthesis using acid catalysis. I initiated chiral Lewis acids over 25 years ago. I then shifted my interests to Brønsted acids as well. The number of people in this area is increasing - sometimes I feel it is a little too crowded.


What are you working on at the moment?


"If a molecule used to be made in 20 steps but you can now make it in three then that changes the world."

I have nine graduate students and four post docs. Each one is doing something different. I am particularly interested in cascade reactions - everything should go into one pot or into a tube reactor.  I believe this is the future of organic chemistry. The big question is how to make molecules in very few steps. If a molecule used to be made in 20 steps but you can now make it in three then that changes the world.


Is the economic crisis making it more difficult for you to obtain funding?
At the beginning of my career it was very difficult to get funding but now it is easier. The economic crisis hasn't hit us too hard, at least at the moment. Thanks Mr Obama!



"The economic crisis hasn't hit us too hard, at least at the moment. Thanks Mr Obama!"

In Japan, the older I get, the easier it is to get funding. In the US, it is much more difficult. You have to write down a lot to justify the funding. I find this quite useful though because I have the chance to think about my projects very seriously - not that I didn't before!


You studied in Japan but now live in the US. How do science and attitudes to science differ between the two countries?
It may sound very diplomatic but both are great. I have been lucky enough to spend time working with young people in both countries. They all have had nice energies and a positive way of thinking.


You travel the world attending conferences. Do you have a favourite destination?
I like Belgium, France, Italy, Japan - anywhere there is good food!


What do you do in your spare time?
I sometimes play golf but most of the time I am thinking about where I can eat nice food!


I am also interested in Zen Buddhism - I like the way of thinking it promotes. I have Chinese brush writing representing the word 'now' in my office. It is a very important word. It means 'no past, no future, no regret or worry - just enjoy the moment'.


What would you be if you weren't a chemist?
I never thought about it. In junior high school I had already started studying organic chemistry by myself. When I finished high school I had finished some university textbooks. I wasn't interested in other fields. Organic chemistry is my life.


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Related Links







Link icon Hisashi Yamamoto's homepage
at the University of Chicago, US





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