I was always very interested in natural sciences in school due to fantastic biology, chemistry and physics teachers, but I also liked other languages, maths and music. The final decision to study chemistry was probably triggered by a couple of close friends and a cousin to do the same.
What interests you about your field of research?
What intrigues me is discovering things that were previously considered impossible, such as the formation and isolation of molecules – the non-existence of which I was taught during my studies – or the observation of unusual bonding situations or unexpected structural features. Fortunately, in the chemistry of heavy main group elements, such things occur relatively often. On a more practical side, we recognised that many of our compounds also exhibit useful properties, for instance super-ion conductivity or extreme non-linear optical properties, which gives our research a practical aspect besides the purely academic charm.
What are you most proud of in your life/career?
I am very thankful that I managed to combine my professional career with family life – hence having four biological and several dozens of academic children, all of which perform brilliantly, which I am actually proud of. Furthermore, I am glad to be an active part of the scientific community. As a member of several boards, I can actively contribute to the national and international development of science and also to the support of young researchers, in addition to my role as a mentor.
What’s been your biggest challenge?
Running a large group and performing many functions are both interesting and time-consuming. The biggest challenge has been – and still is – efficient time-management for being able to dedicate enough time to all of my students, and at the same time fulfil all of the tasks in a satisfying manner. Luckily, it has worked out well so far. Science-wise, the biggest challenges were firstly, to understand the bonding situation in the [Pd3@Sn8Bi6]4- anion, which we managed with the help of quantum chemistry, and secondly, the variation of one of my favourite molecules (see below) regarding both other elemental combinations and organic derivatives, which we have not yet discovered.
What's your favourite molecule and why?
My favourite molecule is the [Ge24Sn32Se132]24- anion: a beautiful inorganic ball with dodecahedral symmetry, a large cavity inside, the potential for small molecule trapping and activation, and a remarkable (and in some regards also annoying) stability. Yet, I also very much like some of our intermetalloid clusters, which are small multi-metallic spheres that may be viewed as super-atoms or super-molecules, many of which exhibit complicated and fascinating bonding situations.
Of all the places you've visited for conferences, where would you like to go back to for a holiday?
My family and I actually went to several places in Europe that I have visited for the first time for delivering a lecture, for example Durham, but I would like to go back to Santiago de Compostela, and to Galacia in Spain in general. Outside Europe, I would definitely like to return to Vancouver Island or Nova Scotia for a holiday.
What’s your favourite international cuisine from travels or the most unusual thing you've eaten?
The best food I was served during business travels was probably in Heraklion, Crete – fantastic Greek seafood in a restaurant close to the harbour. This is closely followed by a fantastic paella in Santiago de Compostela, Spain. The most unusual thing I have (accidentally) eaten was a sea snail served in Hangzhou, China.
If you weren't a scientist, what would you be?
I would probably be a musician, playing the violin in an orchestra or a string quartet.