The Sceptical Chymist | Reactions – David K Smith


1. What made you want to be a chemist?

I had two inspirational and very different teachers at my local comprehensive school in Stockport, UK. One teacher was a total extrovert – always demonstrating exciting chemistry experiments – getting the class excited about the power of practical chemistry. The other teacher was a real scholar – he enrolled me in the Royal Society of Chemistry and gave me a copy of Linus Pauling’s book, ‘The Nature of the Chemical Bond’. In combination, these two teachers made me realise what I could achieve with chemistry, convincing me that it would make a satisfying career, and I would have the chance to address problems of real importance.

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

I would love to be a chef in my own restaurant. Synthetic chemistry is so related to cooking, and menu design is similar to molecular design. I love to cook, and love to eat good food – I especially love to create good food for others. The feeling I get from cooking a meal for friends is similar to the feeling I have when we have finished the synthesis of a new molecule which has unique properties and interesting behaviour.

3. How can chemists best contribute to the world at large?

I think that chemists have perhaps sometimes been a little scared of approaching big problems, and have preferred to work on smaller achievable targets. This means chemists have often undersold their potential, and chemistry therefore rarely appears in the popular media. However, the ability of chemists to synthesise new things is unparalleled in any other science. This creative, even imaginative, side to our subject is one of its great strengths. Furthermore, our innate grasp of the molecular world places us in a unique position to understand the world which surrounds us. By uniting synthesis and molecular-scale understanding, chemists have the potential to involve themselves in solving big problems of widespread interest – the evolution of life from complex chemical mixtures, molecular approaches to nanomedicine, and potential solutions to the energy crisis all spring to mind.

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

It would have to be Charles Darwin. His is the only theory that has remained controversial for so long because of the science/religion divide. If possible, I would like to get Galileo along for similar reasons. I would love to know how they felt taking on orthodox belief. I would also be interested in their response to the fact that we now live in a world where many people have more belief in science than religion, largely as a result of their efforts.

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

I am often tinkering around in the lab – usually to develop experiments suitable to demonstrate to undergraduates, school students or the general public. If I’m having a bad day, that’s what I like to go and do best – play with an experiment and chat with my research team while I do it. I think the last real experiment I did was investigating a colourful sensor array to develop a practical exercise for some school students, in which they would make a chemical version of the human tongue, which was able to detect specific analytes by pattern recognition.

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

The CD would have to be Marbles, by Marillion. Yes, they did release that Kayleigh song back in the 80s! Marbles, however, is an amazing double album released in 2004 that takes me on the best musical journey – it’s an album about losing your marbles, losing yourself and perhaps eventually, but only eventually, finding love. Choosing a book is really tough, but I think I would have to go for Haruki Murakami’s Kafka on the Shore. This book is simply magical and to be honest, pretty much defies description. You get lost in the plot and wound up with the vivid characters as their fates twist together – an ideal distraction for exile on a desert island.

David K Smith is in the Department of Chemistry at the University of York, UK, and works on nanochemistry. He is interested in making nanoscale molecules capable of self-assembling into structured materials or interacting with specific biological targets. His research has applications in the development of smart materials (gels) and in nanomedicine (gene therapy and targeted anticancer drugs).

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