1. What made you want to be a chemist?
From the first moment I studied chemistry at school, I was hooked. I think it was the order and logic of the subject that appealed to me – the way that even at an early level you could take a few simple “knowns” or principles and extrapolate them to new reactions or phenomena. I certainly had no grand plan at that age to make a career from it – there are no scientists in the family – I just kept enjoying studying the subject from one level to the next. I feel fortunate to have a career doing something I enjoy and feel passionate about.
2. If you weren’t a chemist and could do any other job, what would it be – and why?
Any arena where you get paid to indulge your hobby or interest qualifies as a dream job. As a boy, it would have been right wing for Manchester United, then as a teenager probably guitarist in a rock band. Given that a lack of innate talent coupled with advancing years seem to have kyboshed both of those, I’ll go for winemaker. I’m in awe of the skills of the growers and blenders, and naturally fascinated by the underlying chemical processes. I’m quite keen on the end product too.
3. How can chemists best contribute to the world at large?
This has been touched upon in the earlier posts, but I’d say that our biggest challenge is a social one, not a technological one. We seem to be in an age where many of the world’s ills (from global warming to scares over vaccinations) are being blamed on scientific/technological advance – largely fuelled by a popular media which is either scientifically illiterate or wilfully misrepresenting the facts in many cases. The scientific community has to contribute to the winning back of public confidence by better explaining publicly what we do, why we do it, and what the potential benefits (and risks) are. If we don’t, we endanger both future funding and the development of the next generation of science students.
4. Which historical figure would you most like to have dinner with – and why?
Richard Feynman. A truly remarkable intellect who lived through most of the defining moments of the 20th Century (scientific and otherwise), he was also a polymath and entertainer. If I could pick a living person, Keith Richards – he ought to have a few interesting stories to tell, provided he could remember them. I suspect the dinner would be more liquid than solid.
5. When was the last time you did an experiment in the lab – and what was it?
Five years ago, trying to finish a short synthesis prior to a conference presentation after the postdoc on the project had to leave to take up a job. When the NMR spectrum of the product came back, the rest of the group circled ominously, sensing an opportunity to have some fun at my expense if the reaction had failed or the sample was dirty. As luck would have it, the spectrum was clean as a whistle, so I retired to my office with pride intact. I haven’t tempted fate by going back since!
6. If exiled on a desert island, what one book and one CD would you take with you?
I’m a bit of a vinyl/CD junkie, so just one CD is a tricky call. I take it iPods aren’t fair game? If not, then I’ll go for “Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea” by PJ Harvey – an eclectic enough album to keep me going for a few months at least. For my book I would take the first volume of Clive James’ autobiography, Unreliable Memoirs – a beautifully written description of a young boy growing up after his father’s death in the war that elicits tears of laughter and sympathy in equal measure.
Steve Marsden is in the School of Chemistry at the University of Leeds, UK, and works on the development of new synthetic methods and their application to the construction of complex bioactive molecules.