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Interview: Reaching for the summit
17 March 2010
Luis Oro is a professor of chemistry at the University of Zaragoza, Spain. His main research interests are in coordination and organometallic chemistry, reaction mechanisms and homogeneous catalysis. In October 2008 he became president of the European Association for Chemistry and Molecular Sciences (EuCheMS)
What inspired you to study organometallic chemistry and catalysis?
I started my career working on classical coordination chemistry. When I was in the last year of my PhD studies, in the early 1970s, I attended a NATO School in Italy, and I heard about the new field of organometallic chemistry. I met Jack Lewis there, and I took the decision to do postdoctoral research at the University of Cambridge, UK, with him where I became familiar with rhodium and iridium chemistry. After working with these type of complexes, catalytic and mechanistic studies became a natural progression.
Do you consider yourself a lab chemist, a chemistry teacher, or a chemistry businessman?
For me research and teaching are strongly connected and the laboratory is the right place to make this connection. In the early 1990s, I was appointed by the Spanish administration to be responsible for an ambitious research plan on science and technology. With the support of the minister Javier Solana, it was very successful and has considerably contributed to the renaissance of scientific research in Spain. During that period I did not do any teaching and it was hard combining research with administrative duties. After that experience, I received some tempting offers from the chemistry business world but I declined them. I like my job at the university too much.
What are you most proud of in your career to date?
There is no single event that I could look back at and say that is the achievement of my career. But there are some achievements of our group that I personally liked such as our work on metal-dihydrogen complexes and their role in homogeneous catalysis, and the mechanistic studies on catalysis by dinuclear complexes. Concerning cluster chemistry, the preparation of novel and unusual architectures, such as the linear tetra- or hexa-nuclear complexes 'rhodium and iridium pyrazolato blues' or new types of linear homometalic or heterometallic imido metal clusters was a good achievement.
You have been president of EuCheMS since October 2008. What are your main aims in this role?
I aim to continue the efforts to create a European identity among the chemical societies, to increase the visibility of chemistry at the European level, and to act as political voice towards European and international organisations.
It is very important that EuCheMS provides a point for discussion in order to influence European Union government and politicians on the development of European research and the key role of chemistry as a central science.
Chemistry in all countries is under increasing pressure, therefore the need for a more dynamic and officially recognized not-for-profit organisation with headquarters in Brussels to facilitate contacts with decision makers at a European level is increasing.
EuCheMS is also working to put European chemistry as an entity on the map, as the American Chemical Society does for its continent. The European Chemistry Congresses, held in Budapest (2006) and Torino (2008), the future Nuremberg congress, to be held in 2010, and the numerous European scientific meetings, sponsored events and development of initiatives in specific areas carried out by Divisions and Working Parties are important catalysts for promoting European chemistry.
How do you rank Spain in terms of research and development?
In recent years, Spain has considerably increased its position in the scientific world. A Thomson Scientific report analyzing ten years of influential research placed Spain in ninth position of the most significant countries in science, based on both the volume and percentage of published scientific papers that reached the top one percent of most-cited papers worldwide. In my opinion, Spain is reasonably placed on scientific research but a considerable effort should be made on technology transfer and innovation.
What impact does chemistry have on the environment?
Some people perceive chemistry and the chemical industry as harmful to the environment, but I believe that we should be able to explain that many new advances in the field of chemistry are allowing us to develop more environmentally friendly molecules, materials and applications, while preserving the quality and the lifestyle we expect.
Chemistry has been a major contributor to the extraordinary rise in human life expectancy and in the material quality of life that has come about in recent decades.
You've always been a supporter of nuclear energy, what would you say to people who are against it?
Taking into account the world energy demand, I think that we need to include nuclear energy in our energy mix. In spite of its reputation, nuclear energy is efficient, reliable and relatively clean, emitting no greenhouse gases or regulated air pollutants while generating electricity and the risks are acceptable. Nevertheless, I hope that renewable energies will increase their share and become technically and economically more competitive. I dream of a future based on solar energy for my grandchildren. However, it is difficult to think of meeting the world energy needs in the next decade without nuclear energy.
What would be your message to the younger generation of scientists?
Have faith in yourself, and be ready to put your heart and soul into your activity. If you are interested in research, do not forget to choose your advisor judiciously. In due course, separate yourself sufficiently from your mentors and try to be original in order to create your own identity.
If you weren't a scientist, what would you be?
Chemistry always attracted me, but when I was at secondary school I was tempted to study medicine. My other passion is for mountains and in some moments, I also dream about being a mountain guide. Two of my friends became professionals at this activity and I still love to climb mountains with them. Last year, to celebrate the 40th anniversary of a mountain expedition, four of us, all over 60 years old, climbed a peak of about 6600 metres in Nepal. To summit it with my old friends was a fantastic experience.
Luis Oro's homepage
University of Zaragoza, Spain
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A C–H activation–CO2-carboxylation reaction sequence mediated by an Iridium(dppm) species. Formation of the anionic ligand (Ph2P)2C–COOH
Jens Langer, María José Fabra, Pilar García-Orduña, Fernando J. Lahoz and Luis A. Oro, Chem. Commun., 2008, 4822
Pentamethylcyclopentadienyl-iridium(III) complexes with pyridylamino ligands: synthesis and applications as asymmetric catalysts for Diels–Alder reactions
Daniel Carmona, M. Pilar Lamata, Fernando Viguri, Ricardo Rodríguez, Fernando J. Lahoz, Isabel T. Dobrinovitch and Luis A. Oro, Dalton Trans., 2007, 1911
Tris(pyrazolyl)borate carbosilane dendrimers and metallodendrimers
José A. Camerano, Miguel A. Casado, Miguel A. Ciriano and Luis A. Oro, Dalton Trans., 2006, 5287
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