The Sceptical Chymist | Reactions Catch-up: Stephen Davey


Stephen DaveyStephen Davey is the Chief Editor for Nature Reviews Chemistry. Steve was originally interviewed on Reactions in July 2008; given that Nature Reviews Chemistry will release its first issue next week, we thought we would check in and see what’s changed recently.

1. What has changed in your role since you last appeared on Reactions?

When I was last interviewed, I had just started working at Nature Chemistry – which hadn’t launched. I spent almost eight years handling (mostly) the organic chemistry content for the journal during which time I moved across the Atlantic to live in Boston, and then back to live in London. For most of that my time in America there was a science-literate/appreciative president, something which is wildly undervalued.

In that time, I’ve read a huge number of papers. Some of them I got to publish and contrary to what many may think accepting papers (not rejecting them) is definitely the best part of my job — and if I’ve contributed in any way to making them better that’s really satisfying.

In February this year I left to begin my new role launching Nature Reviews Chemistry. This will be second Nature journal I’ve been involved with launching, with the added excitement/pressure that the buck stops with me this time. With a little luck my hair won’t be as grey as Stu’s in a few years.

2. What do you think is the most important aspect of your new journal?

I think reviews can be a really valuable part of the literature, but only if they provide something more than a ready-made reference list. I read reviews to find out about important developments, but more importantly I read them to get insight from experts and hear their opinions on where we should go next. I think the majority of review articles are too long, and that too often review articles are either targeted at experts or at novices (both are in need of good reviews) but believe that it is possible to target both demographics in one article. I’m not saying it’s easy – just possible.

Also important, Nature Reviews Chemistry is one part of a wider commitment to chemistry at Nature Research Group. I’ve often said that I never read Nature as a graduate student (there was next to nothing in it that would have interested me). Now I look at it every week – and not just because I work here! There is more chemistry and that’s a good thing – it deserves to get the attention.

3. Which is your favourite element — or if not an element, favourite molecule and why?

steve molecule_formattedN,N-diethyl-5-(2-phenylnaphthalen-1-yl)pyridin-3-amine. First off, I’m fairly certain I was the first person to make it. It’s not an especially useful molecule. In fact it’s a by-product – from a reaction that I ran towards the end of my PhD. It was made in something of a ‘hail Mary’ attempt to complete a synthesis that wouldn’t work any other way. I think I’m right in saying that my PhD advisor didn’t really have a great deal of confidence in the reaction working and the fact that this product was formed confirmed that the reaction worked the way I thought it might. I still remember his response when I told him the outcome (NSFW).

4. Imagine that your inbox is empty, there is nothing in need of writing, and there are no experiments that need attention: how would you spend this free time?

Firstly, let me say I’d need a really good imagination. I guess it depends on how long the inbox will be empty for! I like to play snooker1 — even though I’m not very good. I’d like to be better but it takes a lot of practice. If it’s just a couple of hours off, a snooker club is where I’m headed. After that the cinema and then spend some time cooking. I think I’m quite a good cook, but I don’t spend nearly enough time doing it.

If there’s more time, then I refer you to question 6.

5. If you were given $1 million as you stepped out of your office to do with what you will, what would you use it for?

I’m assuming that “pay of my mortgage and buy a fast car” is too glib? I’ve often idly wondered if I could go back to research if I didn’t have to concern myself with applying for funding to just do what I wanted. But I’m not sure that I’d really want to do that. It’s just nostalgia for time in the lab and I’ve forgotten just how hard it is. Also, $1 million is not nearly as much as it seems to do research with.

I think it would be great to use the money to advance public understanding/enjoyment of chemistry. I won’t be the first person to recount that when I tell people that I’m a chemist they respond with “I hated chemistry at school” or something similar. That’s where the problems start. Perhaps there’s too much information overload and not enough time for students to just explore and find out what interests them? The system as it is worked OK for me, but I worry that our subject misses out on some really creative people in this way. And even if people don’t go on to work in chemistry, a generally more science literate public would be a very good thing.

I’d have to think really exactly to spend the money though. I don’t think that many of the current approaches to the problem are all that successful — I think we spend too much time preaching to the converted.

6. Where would you most like to travel to, but have never been — and why?

My first reaction is to say India. Really though, there are too many places to list. I picked India because I love to try new food and Indian food is one of my favourites. I’d like to get the authentic experience though.

7. Which chemist do you look up to most, living or otherwise — and why?

I was going to call you out for being over-delicate and saying “otherwise” rather than just “dead”, and then I realized that I could go fictional. Severus Snape. Potions is obviously chemistry, and Alan Rickman was one of the best actors of his generation. 2016 got off to a bad start when he died and went downhill from there.

Stay tuned next week for more Nature Reviews Chemistry-related content! We’ll be featuring authors of reviews in NRC on Reactions on a regular basis, so be sure to email nchem —at— if you’d like us to feature the author of your favourite review!

[1] For our non-British readers, snooker is a billiards game similar to pool, but (to oversimplify, perhaps) is typically played on a larger table with a different scoring system (among other differences). I’ll save you a click to Wikipedia here.

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