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Interview: Riding high
16 September 2009
Philip Mountford on jockeying, bribing techniques and the challenges ahead for chemistry. Interview by Amaya Camara-Campos
Philip Mountford is a professor of chemistry at the University of Oxford, UK. His research interests centre on the synthesis, structure, bonding and reactivity of organometallic compounds of the transition metals and lanthanides.
I have heard you used to ride horses, how did you end up as a chemistry professor?
I rode a lot as a child and teenager, so after my A-levels I took up a position in a horse racing yard as an assistant. After a year or so I didn't quite make the grade for the big stage so I decided to go to university. I am sure my racing background helped in the interview. I already had my A-level grades and so the interviewer asked, half jokingly, if I had any tips, not really expecting a serious answer. But as it happened I had been with somebody the day before who had a hot tip, I passed that on and the horse won. Sure enough, a few days later I got an offer to read chemistry! After graduating, I went on to gain a DPhil and after a period as a lecturer at Nottingham, I was lucky enough to get a job back in Oxford where I was successively promoted to reader and then professor a couple of years ago.
Why did you specialise in inorganic chemistry and catalysis?
I was initially most interested in organic chemistry but it was Dr Peter Pye who really inspired my interest in transition metal organometallic chemistry. I don't think we really covered much catalysis back in 1985, but all these fascinating metal-mediated transformations really grabbed me. In my group, I like to think we make interesting compounds with some sort of raison d'Ítre: could be an unusual molecular or electronic structure or some sort of stoichiometric or catalytic transformation.
What are the challenges ahead for catalysis?
I think that improving selectivity (in the way nature can), efficiency, using non-toxic solvents and cheaper (and/or more abundant) metals are some of the main targets. This is really with regard to known reactions. I think there are transformations waiting to be discovered which we haven't really dreamed of. In that regard, there is a role for blue-skies exploratory studies. This is harder and harder to get funding for nowadays - which is ironic since our past successes are built more or less on this paradigm.
I think we are already seeing the effect of the recession from an industrial funding point of view. The present (perceived or real) difficulties in gaining government funding stem from other reasons. I think we all recognise that, whatever the colour of the next UK government, there will be significant public sector cut-backs which must surely impact on the funds available to research councils. I also suspect - from a chemistry point of view - we will see more research funding focussed towards immediate or medium-term industrial or technological goals. This is not unreasonable of course, but we must continue to 'horizon-scan' as well as being a technological arm of the government.
You have developed catalysts for the synthesis of environmentally-friendly and biodegradable polymers, how advanced is that area of research?
I think my group's contributions to this area are still in their infancy. But I am very excited by the opportunity to contribute to a field which can in principle help reduce pollution, reduce demands on non-renewable resources and is intellectually and technically challenging.
Which is your favourite metal to work with?
That's quite difficult. I worked a lot with tungsten as a graduate student and research fellow (my first serious encounter with a metal). My group has worked with many metal-organic compounds (magnesium, calcium, scandium, yttrium, lanthanum, samarium, neodymium, titanium, zirconium, chromium, zinc, aluminium and indium), and I think they would expect me to say titanium as we have used it very successfully. But I have a sneaking admiration for samarium which, as a fairly large early lanthanide, is a bit of a wild thing but can be pinned down with the right ligands.
How important for research are collaborations with other universities and industry?
Speaking for myself, collaborations with other academics and industry partners are hugely important. As well as being intellectually challenging, scientifically fruitful and financially important, one develops strong friendships. I guess about 25% of my publications probably involve industry or other university collaborations and I really would not have got to where I am today without these people.
I think there are several sorts of 'good' researcher. You need the dedicated, systematic types who are able to really drill down into a problem for months and years with focus and dedication. Then you need the 10-ideas-a-day types who set the agenda and make a sort of creative tension which us mere mortals can feed off for years as they disappear over the horizon. If I look at the successful academics in my area, I see people who are focussed, hard-working, receptive to ideas and able to inspire students and co-workers to try their best and share in a common vision.
What are your views about the current world food crisis and how can chemistry help the situation?
The food crisis seems to me as much a societal and political problem as an agricultural one. You see waste and abuse of food (often shipped all around the world as we ignore the rich seasonal variations in our own countries) in many 'developed' countries, but yet ruinous governments in others where much more could be done to solve local problems. Chemistry can help in so many ways: pest-control for crops; improved fertilizers; GM; medicines against cattle infection. These seem to me the more obvious impacts but, also, since the food crisis is amplified by man-made climate change, efforts channelled by chemists towards the better use of energy and reduced CO2 emissions could also indirectly help.
Do you still ride horses today?
Actually I don't ride any more. Between my children, my wife, keeping up with friends and then the day job, I don't have much time for serious hobbies. I do cycle to work every day as regular exercise.
Your favourite food?
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Philip Mountford's homepage
at the University of Oxford, UK
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Cycloaddition reactions of transition metal hydrazides with alkynes and heteroalkynes: coupling of TiNNPh2 with PhCCMe, PhCCH, MeCN and tBuCP
Jonathan D. Selby, Christian Schulten, Andrew D. Schwarz, Andreas Stasch, Eric Clot, Cameron Jones and Philip Mountford,†Chem. Commun., 2008, 5101
Sodium, magnesium and zinc complexes of mono(phenolate) heteroscorpionate ligands
A. Daniel Schofield, Mariana Luna Barros, Michael G. Cushion, Andrew D. Schwarz and Philip Mountford,†Dalton Trans., 2009, 85
Reactions of cyclopentadienyl-amidinate titanium imido compounds with CO2: cycloaddition-extrusion vs. cycloaddition-insertion
Aldo E. Guiducci, Catherine L. Boyd, Eric Clot and Philip Mountford,†Dalton Trans., 2009, 5960
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