Writer and poet, Sason is an enthusiastic advocate of the value of insight, beauty and meaning in chemistry.
Sason was born in Iraq to a Jewish family who later moved to a southern part of Tel Aviv. His enthusiasm for the various opportunities he was given, began early.
“I was fortunate already then, because education was a high priority in the young state of Israel, and there was vision and encouragement of good pupils – what we call today, in the typically worn out term, excellence. I was fortunate also because I grew up in a young dynamic society, where what mattered was my success in school. So, I owe a debt of gratitude to my country of immigration.”
In his early teens, Sason started playing around with chemicals. These were accessible from the pharmacy, the school lab and photographic equipment stores.
“I liked colour changes: of CuSO4 when heated and then re-cooled, of PbI4 that gave golden leaves, of the crimson red of the permanganate solution and how it changed quickly to brown and then transparent when I added some chemicals to it. This is the magic of chemistry.”
Despite this, Sason’s career could have turned out very differently. At 15, he had to choose between humanities and science. With an early love of literature, the choice was difficult, but natural sciences won.
After three years of compulsory service in the army, Sason went to Bar Ilan University, where he started on the path to becoming a theoretical chemist. “I was taught about these creatures called orbitals and was immediately enchanted: they attracted my imagination,” he says.
Practical work was not as appealing as other areas of chemistry. During his MSc, Sason had issues with the tellurium-based compound he was using that oxidised and reacted with many other chemicals. “Soon, all my spatulas were destroyed, my flasks were filled either with black paste or with some white sticky emulsion. I was desperate!”
Before being able to complete his MSc, he was called up to fight in the Yom Kippur war. It was during this time, when he would spend many hours waiting during bomb alerts, that he visualised the answer to one of his problems: the nature of the black paste.
After completing his National Service, he travelled to the University of Washington,US, to continue his studies. Several further moves then followed as he found work in Israel, France and then Canada. When a family came along, Sason saw it was time for change.
“This was a realisation that my scientific work was tearing me away from my family. I had to learn the secrets of balance…”
Sason now works in Jerusalem. He strives to inspire others with various activities such as public lectures and teaching.
“I try to show them that chemistry is beautiful and meaningful. After a pupil has reached a stage where they're convinced that the subject is beautiful, they may be in a position to say 'OK, I'm now ready to see equations, balance equations and calculate moles'.”
In his research, Sason has been a proponent of ‘valence bond theory’; a way of describing how chemicals are formed and react with each other. He contributed to new bonding features and also to multi-scale reactivity patterns in metalloenzymes.
On asking Sason if he has any advice for researchers who may be facing opposition or prejudice against their ideas, Sason says, “my years in valence bond chemistry taught me that if you follow your heart you will learn to fight the opposition. You will also discover all your twin souls along the way, as I found Philippe Hiberty and Wei Wu, and this will make your way much easier.”
Sason’s final piece of advice to anyone setting out on a chemistry career, or anyone under-represented in the chemical sciences is “simply follow your heart. I did and I was seldom sorry”.
Find out more about Sason by reading his autobiography. It is a compelling read, full of stories and of Sason’s enthusiasm for “the magic of chemistry”.
“Science is a human endeavor, with struggles, disappointments, victories, and friendships. This is also a story, which shows that ‘walking the road chosen’, even if at times other roads twinkle more brightly, may eventually pay off.”
Words by Jenifer Mizen
Images courtesy of Sason Shaik
Published October 2013