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Interview: Bending the rules
18 August 2009
Guy Bertrand talks to Marie Cote about creating dream compounds, tennis and setting up international labs
|Guy Bertrand is a Distinguished Professor of Chemistry at the University of California, Riverside (UCR), CA, US, where he heads the UCR/CNRS (National Center for Scientific Research) joint laboratory. His research interests concern main group elements and are at the interface between organic, organometallic and inorganic chemistry. Major ongoing projects in Guy Bertrand's group are the synthesis of stable carbenes, highly reactive intermediates and defying standard valence rules.|
What led you to chemistry?
I do not think I was programmed to become a chemist. I wanted to be a tennis player, but I was better at school than on the court! Then, I studied science. I did not like mathematics and physics, and at that time I found biology too empirical, so I chose chemistry.
Where do you look for ideas?
All along my career, I have tried to demonstrate that some of the rules we learned at school are not totally correct, or at least that we can find tricks to get around them. A good illustration is given by our recent synthesis of push-push allenes, which are flexible and bent, whereas regular allenes were believed to be rigid and linear. Do not misunderstand, I am a deep admirer of ancient chemists who were working without the modern technological tools, and this is my way to render homage to them. In many of my papers there is a reference to a work from the beginning of the 20th century, or even earlier.
What is the most significant aspect of your work?
I guess that the synthesis of the first stable carbene in 1988 is the most important result of my career. At that time, very few chemists believed that carbenes could be isolated. Certainly nobody thought, including myself, that some twenty years later, carbenes would be ubiquitous ligands for transition metal based catalysts, and catalysts in their own right. Having said that, I have to recognise that our first stable carbene did not find applications by itself, and that the popularity of carbenes is mainly due to the so-called N-heterocyclic carbenes, discovered by my friend Bo Arduengo. This perfectly illustrates that it is difficult to predict if a discovery, as spectacular as it is, will be important for the future or not.
What do you love about your job?
I can spend hours at the NMR or X-ray machine to be sure that we have really created the new chemical object we were dreaming of. This is fascinating. I also really like writing publications - finding the best way to put the results together to make a nice story. It is just like writing a novel.
The success of former PhD students or postdoctoral fellows is also very rewarding. To make a comparison, when I was young I played tennis, and I wanted to be the best; now I am more interested to see my kids winning a game, than winning a game by myself.
You are a keen communicator. How would you define the importance of teaching?
When I was in France, I was teaching both at the Ecole Polytechnique at Palaiseau (one of the elite schools in France) and at night at an institution for adults. I enjoyed both, but I believe that for extremely bright students, the instructor is much less important than for people that learn with difficulty. For the latter, you have this wonderful feeling of being useful. In the US, teaching first or second year students at the university is really a lot of fun. The barrier between the professors and the students is almost non-existent, and I like it. My aim here is to make chemistry as attractive as possible for every student. My great pleasure is to see some of the students majoring in biology change their mind and become chemistry majors!
Having worked both in Europe and in the US, what would you say the major differences are in the life of an academic?
Let's start by considering young scientists. To begin an academic career, I am quite convinced that the US system is better, although very brutal. The young scientist is, right after his postdoctoral training, totally independent, and the universities give them everything they need to be successful. Of course, too many fail, and it is particularly painful when you deny tenure to one of your young colleagues. However, you also have to keep in mind that there are hardly enough scientists in the US, and therefore it is less difficult to find another job than in Europe. Those who survive can be internationally recognised below 35 years old, which is hardly possible in Europe.
Lastly, I would like to mention a big difference between US and Southern and Eastern Europe. This is the existence of a strong competition between the US universities, and that makes the faculty of a department a real team. I mean that you are not playing for yourself, as in individual sports, but for a team. When someone receives an award, the whole department shares the success. Since the universities want to be ranked at the top, they try to attract the best people, and this is to the enormous benefit of scientists, who can improve their facilities.
In summary, the two systems have pros and cons, and I would advise young scientists to test both, via postdoctoral stays abroad. Then, they could choose the one that suits them best.
You point out that your laboratory is a joint venture between the University of California and the French CNRS. Can you comment on the collaboration?
I am very proud of this, and I believe that this is representative of the structure of fundamental research in the future. We have to keep in mind that the results of fundamental research, wherever they have been obtained, are published in the open literature, and belong to humanity. Of course, the countries and institutions that are financing this research have to be acknowledged. Therefore, all our publications mention the French CNRS, UC Riverside, and any other agencies, which sponsor our work. They share the expenses and they have their part of all of the results; this is a win-win situation. Here, I would like to emphasise the pioneering role of the CNRS in this way of internationalising fundamental research. Globalisation is not only a word, it is a reality that we cannot ignore. I am quite confident that other agencies all over the world will follow and that many international labs will be created.
Finally, what would be your message to the younger generation?
A very simple but very important one: science and scientists are not boring! The time where our great predecessors were more or less isolated in their labs is over; nowadays, scientists work as a team. We travel all around the world, meet new friends at conferences, and what can be more exciting than to make a tiny contribution to improving the welfare of humanity.
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Guy Bertrand's homepage
at the University of California, Riverside, US
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