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Interview: Rivalling nature
16 April 2010
Matthew Gaunt is a lecturer in organic chemistry at the University of Cambridge, UK. His research interests are focused on the development of cascade processes for the rapid assembly of natural products and the invention of catalytic strategies for chemical synthesis. In 2009 he was awarded the Chemical Society ReviewsEmerging Investigator Award and is now an associate editor for Chemical Science, a new journal from RSC Publishing.
Who or what inspired you to become a scientist?
I owe most of it to my chemistry teacher at A-level who was the first person that made me realise that chemistry was actually interesting. Before that I didn't think it was the most inspiring subject.
What motivated you to specialise in organic chemistry?
As a synthetic chemist, what I find most interesting is how molecules can be made, and inventing new ways that don't hinge on conventional rules to put them together. I've always thought that going against the conventional rules is more interesting following the rules, and that this approach could enable us to make molecules that might solve problems such as treating diseases. This is one long term aim that I guess we all hope we can somehow help and contribute to.
What do you find to be the most rewarding aspect of your career?
I like doing things that no one has ever done before, that is very attractive to me. This may seem to be quite a broad comment for academia in general, but I think it is particularly applicable in my field. Finding a way to make a molecule that has never been made before, or with a massive improvement, is very rewarding on a day-to-day basis. Although the long term goal may be that the molecules we make will go on to cure somebody's cancer, we don't directly see this on a daily basis so what inspires me more immediately is doing things that no one has done before.
What would you say is the most exciting problem that you are attempting to solve?
We have two major research programs at the moment that are both roughly aiming towards the same thing. We are trying to develop a blueprint for synthesis that will rival how nature makes molecules. While nature has had millions of years to come up with this, we are trying to do it within our research career which spans, on average probably 40 years, so it really is a broad challenge. But I think it underpins all that we are trying to do, so the biggest challenge is trying to develop a strategy to achieve that goal.
You have just been appointed as an associate editor for the new journal Chemical Science. What do you think is the most exciting thing about the new journal?
It has a slightly different format which gives the author a little bit of freedom to write articles that suit the research as opposed to the format of the journal. For example there is not necessarily a rigid page limit, which when you are trying describe something is quite useful as sometimes you need more than two or three pages.
The second thing that I think is important is that the RSC and the UK in general need a highly competitive flagship chemistry journal. I think this is an opportunity which will really promote UK science.
You have recently been awarded the Chemical Society Reviews Emerging Investigators Award, what message do you have for someone starting out on a research career?
Don't be scared of going after adventurous research.The only way forward is to go after something you believe in, there is no point in pursuing things that are already known.
If you weren't a scientist what would you be?
I always harboured ambitions to be a footballer and would have liked to have played for Liverpool, but I realised at a fairly early age that that wasn't going to happen as I just wasn't good enough.
Matthew Gaunt's homepage
University of Cambridge, UK
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