The Sceptical Chymist | Reactions: Alexander Spokoyny


spokoyny portraitAlexander Spokoyny is in the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry at the University of California, Los Angeles, and works on inorganic cluster chemistry at the interface with materials science and chemical biology. Alex recently published “Atomically precise organomimetic cluster nanomolecules assembled via perfluoroaryl-thiol SNAr chemistry” in Nature Chemistry.

1. What made you want to be a chemist?

Looking back to my adolescent years growing up in Russia, I could not have imagined becoming a chemist, since I was more interested in the humanities (literature and history). Around the 8th grade, my parents (who are both scientists) decided to apply some pressure on me as they were worried about my career aspirations and high probability of me bumming on their couch indefinitely if I would become a historian (humanists in Russia unfortunately make even less money than they do in the United States). Around the same time I took my first chemistry class at school, which was unlike all previous science classes — extremely non-boring and actually exciting. What struck me about chemistry back then was how uncertain it was compared to, let’s say, physics where any laboratory experiment worked and could be rationally explained. On the other hand, the “human factor” in chemistry was apparent and things went often not the way one would have expected. In any case, following my compromise with the parents, I enrolled into the Moscow Lyceum 171 which was offering advanced preparation to high school students in chemistry to ultimately gain admissions to Moscow University. I have spent two years there studying advanced chemistry subjects (organic, analytical and inorganic chemistry) essentially at the University level. Professors there were truly fantastic and taught us a curriculum that is normally offered to college freshmen. Sometime during that period, I decided that I wanted to pursue higher education in chemistry and have been in this business ever since.

2. If you weren’t a chemist and could do any other job, what would it be — and why?

I consider myself as a part of the generation consisting of many kids growing up in a post-Soviet Russia with an infatuation towards the mainstream American culture stemming primarily from watching too many Schwarzenegger, Stallone and Van Damme movies. One of the really cool cultural elements in these classics (and many other movies as I realized later) is American diners and dive bars and the random groups of folks who used to show up at those places. This is something that Russia lacked back in my days, and I find these places personally fascinating and very charming. I would love to own one of these dive bars; I think it will provide me with plenty of interesting conversations and characters to meet with.

3. What are you working on now, and where do you hope it will lead?

One of the long-standing goals in our research program is to make atomically precise nanomaterials. We use stable molecular clusters as template placeholders for the bottom-up synthesis of these species. By developing a wide arsenal of chemistry allowing to modify these cluster “core” molecules selectively, we want to build hybrid systems featuring metals, metal oxides, organic substrates and biomolecules. I think that atomic precision can be detrimental to some of the properties of hybrid nanomaterials and we ultimately would like to probe to what extent this is true in terms of applications.

4. Which historical figure would you most like to have dinner with — and why?

Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain). He had one of the most brilliant senses of humor and I think that would make for a very enjoyable dinner. I am also personally fascinated with a post-Civil War era in the U.S. history so there should be a lot to talk about.

5. When was the last time you did an experiment in the lab — and what was it?

The last experiment I did was several months ago. One of the key precursors we use in our laboratory is meta-carborane. Unfortunately, purchasing it from the overseas vendors in large quantities is very problematic paperwork-wise due to the archaic silliness in the U.S. International Traffic in Arms Regulation (ITAR) stemming from the Cold War era (shout-out to anyone in the government who can fix this!), so we decided to revisit some old industrial patents to produce the compounds in our laboratory on a decagram scale. I’ve made several compounds en route to the final meta-carborane product and my super talented undergraduate co-worker Josh Martin has recently validated the final step.

6. If exiled on a desert island, what one book and one music album would you take with you?

Master and Margarita by Bulgakov and one of Taylor Swift’s early albums (this makes it official that I am not a closeted Taylor Swift fan anymore!).

7. Which chemist would you like to see interviewed on Reactions — and why?

Angela Merkel. There is obviously a lot written about her, but surprisingly not a lot on the chemistry side of things.

[Editor’s note: because at least three separate people asked me while I was preparing this how to pronounce Prof. Spokoyny’s last name, here’s some help.]

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