The Sceptical Chymist | Reactions – Junichiro Yamaguchi


Junichiro Yamaguchi is in the Department of Chemistry at Nagoya University, and works on the synthesis of biologically active molecules and natural products – particularly through C-H bond functionalization. Discovery and development of new chemical reactions in order to aim for the “ideal organic synthesis” are his ultimate goals. He also co-runs Chem-Station, a famous chemistry website in Japan.

1. What made you want to be a chemist?

When I first entered university, I had absolutely no interest in chemistry. However, I am fortunate to have met Prof. Yujiro Hayashi at the time, who completely changed my mind and who eventually became my Ph.D. supervisor. He had an unusual, almost excessive passion for chemistry, and particularly for organic chemistry, which he seemed to enjoy purely out of curiosity. I simply started chemistry in order to try to see what he thought was so incredibly interesting – by that time, his passion had already transferred onto me!

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

I guess I would be a salesman of some business or medical firm because I am drawn by the strength of interpersonal communication, and I think that selling merchandise is based on trust and relationships between people. In this vein, I am also interested in working on the World Wide Web. I would have set up an independent online-based company, although I cannot tell if such a plan would have enjoyed success or not.

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

I am working as an Assistant Professor with Prof. Kenichiro Itami in chemical synthesis. I have partaken in natural product total synthesis, and I have been fortunate enough to be involved in the synthesis of many bioactive natural products during my graduate and postdoctoral research. However, natural product synthesis requires so many complex strategies, such that only fellow scientists in this field could understand the extent of its tortuous and complex nature. In order to realize the “ideal chemical synthesis”, the main emphasis of my research regards the development of new synthetic methods, strategies, and concepts to solve challenging synthetic problems. I would like to make molecules as if one were to construct architectures using LEGO blocks.

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

I would like to have dinner with Prof. Robert Woodward, widely recognized as the best synthetic chemist of the 20th century. Having achieved such tremendous total syntheses in an age when purification techniques and spectroscopic analyses were so limited, is nothing short of extraordinary. I would like to talk to him about chemical synthesis and the future of the field of organic chemistry.

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

I am still running experiments routinely in the lab, and trying to share time with my students in the fumehood. Therefore, I cannot even conceptualize the last experiment I could run, and in fact I do not even want to think about it! Over time, my efforts in the fumehood will have to be gradually reduced, but I would like to keep doing chemistry with my own hands as much as possible.

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

Could I cheat and bring a laptop, or at least an iPhone? If I had to be disconnected from the world, I would simply like to enjoy various pieces of literary works and music, as well as various scientific papers, little by little, until the end of time.

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

I actually have two chemists in mind – the first one is Prof. Phil Baran of The Scripps Research Institute, my postdoc advisor as well as good friend. He is only one year older than me, and yet his ability to synthesize natural products keeps astonishing the chemical community. The second chemist would be Prof. Kenichiro Itami, who I currently share my days with. I would have refused to go back to Japan for my career had I not had the opportunity to meet him and if he did not have such a splendid personality and intellectual talent.

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