Wednesday, October 24, 2012

My Chem Coach Carnival

This week on Twitter there is the #ChemCoach carnival, as organized by @SeeArrOh in which my hand was forced by doing a retweet... (but forced in a nice way). So now I'm obliged to contribute to the carnival.. (day 1, day 2, day3..)

picture by M.P. Johansson
Your current job. I'm an ICREA Research Professor at the University of Girona. ICREA stands for Instituci├│ Catalana de Recerca i Estudis Avan├žats, i.e. the Catalan research institute, which does not have its own facilities but places the Research Professors within the Catalan universities. Basically it means that ICREA hires excellent investigators to do breathtaking research, performed within the universities (or other research centers). 
I'm a Chemist.... working in the Institute of Quantum Chemistry and Catalysis (IQCC), and work on different things: method development, DNA, transition-metal complexes, iron proteins, fullerenes, supramolecular cages.

What you do in a standard "work day." I'm a computational chemist, so basically I spend lot of time in front of the screen. But also there are administrative meetings, scientific meetings, etc. that I have to attend, so there is not much chance of getting RSI. And then as well, there are (undergrad/Master/PhD) students and postdocs to supervise, so I'm lucky if I can sit two to three hours uninterrupted in front of the screen. Fortunately, my group is not so big yet so I do still have time to do so.
But let me get me back to the question, what it is that I do in a standard "work day". Being a computational chemist, I spend lots of hours looking at numbers. I guess I inherited that from my father who was accountant at a local printing house. These numbers give for instance the Cartesian coordinates (x,y,z) of atoms within a particular molecule, or reaction barriers, or vibrational frequencies.
A Fe-complex that we recently studied
Apart from the numbers, I also play around a lot with visualizing the results. This is much more insightful, because as the saying goes, "one picture is worth a thousand words". Again, I guess I inherited this from my father who was very keen on graphics.

What kind of schooling / training / experience helped you get there? I went to the best university (Groningen) in The Netherlands for chemistry at that time. Right now, with the crisis and the budget cuts, I'm not sure if they still are in the same position, but at that time they were first-class in many chemistry disciplines (e.g. Feringa, Berendsen). According to THE it is still in the top100 universities in the world, so I guess they are still going strong. The theoretical chemistry group at that time was very good (Nieuwpoort, Broer, van Duijnen, Snijders), and I learned most of what I know now in that period. Apart from the education "in-house", I was also privileged to be able to go to the two Quantum Chemistry summer schools (Ry, Denmark; ESQC, Tjornarp, Sweden), an annual "summer" school (in December!) in Belgium (Han-sur-Lesse), and had travel funding with my PhD project that allowed me to visit 2-3 international conferences each year.
After my PhD I went for a postdoc in a completely new area (iron chemistry), and switched after two years to again another subject (DNA/RNA, SN2 reactions). I learned a lot of project management in my postdocs, because the first one was really tough (lousy equipment) and the second one an immediate success.
Chocolate cake

How does chemistry inform your work? Chemistry is all around us, inside us, going through us, so I can't actually separate Chemistry from myself or my work. It is what Harry Gray told last year at the ICBIC meeting in Vancouver: "the two most important reactions in the world are photosynthesis and respiration", which are both in the field of bioinorganic chemistry (I was there myself, and so was Nature Chemistry). But there is more to it than that because the people in Girona have a craving for chocolate (I know that there are many more people that like chocolate, but here they are addicted to it). Understanding why that is, and why people like chocolate is again simply Chemistry. We have taste receptors in our body that screen everything that we drink, eat, inhale, and one of them is called the Sweet Taste Receptor (hT1R2/hT1R3). These receptors are so-called G-Protein Coupled Receptors, which have become quite en vogue since a few weeks.

Finally, a unique, interesting, or funny anecdote about your career. During my study I became ill (Infectious mononucleosis, or in Dutch: Ziekte van Pfeiffer), so was ordered to bed for two-three months for complete and full rest. I was that tired that I did not want to do study anymore and was ready to quit*. At the final stages, my girlfriend (now wife) gave me the material for one course (Reaction Mechanisms, Carey/Sundberg), for which I might just be able to be in time for the exam. This material revived my spirits, I recuperated promptly and became Chemistry workaholic ever since.

*I doubt that I would have quit my study, but at least Carey and Sundberg helped my recuperation tremendously.

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