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Highlights in Chemical Science

News from across RSC Publishing.

Interview: Molecular aesthetics

23 July 2007

John Arnold talks to May Copsey about the joys of molecular inorganic chemistry

John Arnold
John Arnold
John Arnold is a professor of inorganic chemistry at the University of California, Berkeley, US, and associate editor of Dalton Transactions. His research interests include organometallic chemistry and catalysis.


What inspired you to become a scientist?
I became interested in science when I was a child. I always wanted to build and make things. After leaving school at the age of 16, I worked in a plastics company in Lancaster, UK. The attraction of the job was studying, one day and two nights a week, at a further education college. That's where I became interested in chemistry. Four years later, I started at Salford University. University was like wonderland compared to my job in industry - I had never known anything like it. I enjoyed making things in the lab and ultimately doing my own research project. I still love making molecules.

Why did you become an inorganic chemist? 
While I was an undergraduate student, two people who inspired me to become an inorganic chemist were Geoffrey Wilkinson and Malcolm Green. At that stage, I had never met them but I admired their chemistry - their work with ferrocene, metal carbonyls, hydrides, etc., fascinated me. 

I subsequently discovered that Wilkinson and Green were incredible personalities, but it was their published chemistry which initially attracted me to them. Ultimately that's what survives - it's what people publish. These scientists and similar characters have left an incredible legacy of important chemistry through their publications.

Instead of staying in the UK, I got the chance to go to the US for my PhD and was fortunate enough to work on early transition metal chemistry with Don Tilley, who was a new assistant professor at the University of California, San Diego.

What projects are you currently working on?

"Ultimately that's what survives - it's what people publish"
- John Arnold
We are interested in ligand scaffolds that can support what we hope to be novel complexes and new reactivity. These ligands are intended to play supporting roles in that they chaperone what goes on at the metal centre. Right now, we are working on a tetradentate ligand system that is proving to be versatile for a wide range of metals. The ligand is capable of stabilizing dinitrogen complexes with widely-differing transition metals and the hope is that unusual binding modes will subsequently influence reaction chemistry in these complexes. We are also working on related ligand design concepts in main group chemistry and in lanthanide and actinide chemistry.

My co-workers and I benefit from the collaborative environment of research at Berkeley. For example, with Peidong Yang's group we are exploring the surface-modification of nanomaterials in chemistry related to ion transport and we have applied some of what we have learnt to arsenate sensing. We also work with Bob Bergman on a project making complexes of Group 4 and 5 metals and their use as catalysts.

As an Englishman working in a US university, what are the advantages of working there?
I like the energy of the people involved and their willingness to work hard and try new things. I am fortunate to be working in a department with very talented people and great facilities. The graduate students are heavily involved in teaching the undergraduate students and this aspect is beneficial all-round; it certainly helped me when I was a graduate student. I had to lecture on topics such as kinetics and thermodynamics, which I don't think I started to understand properly until I had to teach them. US students let you know if they're not following you and this tends to keep you on your toes. Now as a professor, I encourage students to ask questions because everyone has a chance to learn something from the resulting discussion.

What lies in the future for inorganic chemistry?

"the aesthetics of synthetic inorganic chemistry are wonderful"
- John Arnold
Molecular inorganic chemistry has a lot to offer as a result of the kinds of issues that are now emerging as a result of energy and environmental concerns. For example, many of these questions relate to the chemistry of small molecules such as hydrogen, carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide, nitrogen, etc. There are fundamental questions still to be addressed regarding the chemistry of these molecules and molecular inorganic chemistry will be a part of how we go about answering these questions. 

I think inorganic chemistry will continue to be an important discipline because it is a fundamental component of other chemistry; from materials, to catalysis, to biology. Combined with this breadth of scope and the challenges that are out there, the aesthetics of synthetic inorganic chemistry are wonderful, so this will continue to attract people who really enjoy doing the day-to-day chemistry itself in the laboratory.
If you weren't a scientist, what would you be?
If I had any footballing talent, a centre-half for Manchester United. 

Related Links

Link icon John Arnold's homepage
at The University of California, Berkeley

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Related Links

Phenoxytriamine complexes of yttrium: synthesis, structure and use in the polymerization of lactide and -caprolactone
Ian Westmoreland and John Arnold, Dalton Trans., 2006, 4155
DOI: 10.1039/b600939e

Olefination and group transfer reactions of an electron deficient tantalum methylidene complex
Sarah M. Mullins, Robert G. Bergman and John Arnold, Dalton Trans., 2006, 203
DOI: 10.1039/b512741f

Synthesis and characterization of mono -diketiminatosamarium amides and hydrocarbyls
Chunming Cui, Alexandr Shafir, Joseph A. R. Schmidt, Allen G. Oliver and John Arnold, Dalton Trans., 2005, 1387
DOI: 10.1039/b501437a