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Interview: Solutions and cocktails
01 May 2009
Mimi Hii talks to Christina Hodkinson about making a difference in medical diagnostics and how to ace your PhD viva
|Mimi Hii is a senior lecturer in inorganic chemistry at Imperial College, London, UK. Her key research interest lies in the development of catalytic processes for organic synthesis. As a member of the Applied Catalysis Group committee within the RSC's Industry & Technology Forum, she is actively involved in the promotion of catalytic science to academia and industry sections within the UK. She is a member of the scientific committee which is organising a session entitled 'Catalysis for a Sustainable Future' at the forthcoming IUPAC meeting in Glasgow (August 2009).|
What is your earliest recollection of science?
As a little girl, I was always fascinated by how things work - often taking things apart, like my piano and my granddad's radio, to have a closer look!
What's the trickiest problem you've had to overcome in your research and how did you solve it?
In terms of science, the nature of my research area throws up all sorts of technical and practical problems on a daily basis, and there is never one solution that cures all. I am an optimist in this regard - every problem is 'tricky' until it is solved, whereupon it becomes patently obvious and we say 'How did we miss that?'
Working out how to establish and sustain an active research programme in today's funding climate is a very tricky non-scientific problem.
Each academic institution has its own unique history, character and culture. However, good science can flourish in any environment, provided there is enough support, a shared passion and a common goal. I am proud to have worked in departments that have produced some of the world's greatest scientists. To think that they used to roam the same corridors as I do is a very inspiring thought!
What projects are you working on at the moment?
We are developing new catalytic methodologies for atom-economical reactions, for example, OH and NH additions to C=C bonds, and their application to the synthesis of complex organic molecules. The synthesis of optically active materials (asymmetric catalysis) is particularly challenging.
Recently, I have also started collaborative projects with colleagues in chemical engineering, tackling redox reactions that are particularly problematic in synthetic chemistry.
What motivated you to specialise in the development of selective catalysts for C-C and C-X coupling?
As an undergraduate, I was fascinated by the ability of metals to alter the reactivity of organic molecules. On the other hand, I am also amazed by the complexity of organic molecules that have unique biological activities associated with one particular optical form. Doing what I do, I get to work with the best of both worlds - exploring the unique reactivity afforded by organometallic chemistry and constructing complicated organic molecules selectively.
What are your ultimate goals in research?
I'm working towards the day that all reactions will be performed efficiently, starting from the most accessible materials, with no extraneous steps and no waste.
Where do you get your ideas from?
There are a lot of organic reactions that are not particularly efficient, selective or robust. As I like to solve problems, most of my research ideas are associated with the desire to deliver better solutions to these problems.
You're interested in cross-disciplinary work, including chemical engineering and medical diagnostics. What draws you to these areas in particular?
Interdisciplinary work gives me a glimpse into problems in other disciplines, and it is incredibly satisfying to know that I am able to offer a solution using my chemical knowledge. In turn, it also introduces new techniques and concepts that complement my own research projects. Personally, I also enjoy having intelligent conversations with brilliant scientists.
You have been an external examiner for a number of PhD students - what would be your top tips for someone defending their thesis?
. Make sure you know the key concepts and techniques, inside and out.
. Take time to think before you answer the question - avoid saying the first things that come into your head, as they are often wrong.
. You've worked really hard for the results - don't let the examiners think that you know nothing.
Your group motto is 'Work hard, but play even harder'. What do you do in your spare time?
The motto is to remind us all to maintain a work-life balance, although personally I derive a lot of pleasure from my research work, and am finding it increasing difficult to distinguish between the two. When I can, I play the piano (for personal consumption only) and read a wide range of books - anything except fantasy really.
If you weren't a scientist, what would you be?
When I was little, I wanted to be an interpreter working for the UN. Nowadays, I often say that if I ever quit my present job, I will sell up, move to somewhere sunny and exotic, and serve cocktails all day. If and when that happens, I know that many of my current colleagues will be fighting their way to my bar!
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Mimi Hii's homepage
at Imperial College, London, UK
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A recyclable copper(II) catalyst for the annulation of phenols with 1,3-dienes
Luis A. Adrio and King Kuok (Mimi) Hii, Chem. Commun., 2008, 2325
In situ investigation of the oxidative addition in homogeneous Pd catalysts by synchronised time resolved UV-Vis/EXAFS
Gemma Guilera, Mark A. Newton, Charlene Polli, Sakura Pascarelli, Meritxell Guinó and King Kuog (Mimi) Hii, Chem. Commun., 2006, 4306
Applications of phosphine-functionalised polymers in organic synthesis
Meritxell Guinó and King Kuok (Mimi) Hii, Chem. Soc. Rev., 2007, 36, 608
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