Creativity in the Molecular World of Materials Science
As a young girl, Professor Margaret Brimble believed she wasn’t a “creative” person. She admired friends who could draw and write poetry and decided she would just have to settle for good grades in Math and Latin. But then she discovered organic chemistry…
As a mid-career academic engaged in the chemical synthesis of organic molecules I reflect on what attracted me to this field. During my high school years I was always attracted to subjects that were logical and highly systematic. I enjoyed solving a complex mathematical equation or assembling a piece of Latin prose where attention to detail was of paramount importance-one letter written incorrectly could change the tone of the message. I was always comforted by the fact that there was only one correct answer and the challenge for me was reaching that answer. Whilst I successfully engaged in these subjects I was always in awe of friends who were artistic, musical and could write good essays. I always felt that there was an artistic side to me but it never seemed to attract any encouragement from my teachers! I soldiered on studying what I was good at-mathematics, science and Latin. It was not until I began studying organic chemistry at university that I finally found a subject that required intense intellectual rigor but also served as a vehicle for me to develop creative skills.
Working in the field of organic synthesis can be considered a labor of love requiring long hours and enduring stamina, but the educational and creative skills gained en route to achieving a successful synthesis are so rewarding that you cannot imagine working in any other field. Having the opportunity to develop strategies and tactics that, along with intuition, allow the assembly of chemical bonds in specific 3D structural networks is empowering. The life skills learnt when the original strategy stalls or fails and many rescue plans are then put in place, all add to the lifelong learning experience. One cannot help but feel that working in this area of science is both an intellectual challenge worth devoting your life to as well as a unique opportunity to unleash creative skills and experience the excitement of realizing that you are the first person to make a molecule that often never existed before.
Organic synthesis is an area of science that has many challenges ahead. We need to embrace green chemistry, use more renewable feedstocks, use more elegant and efficient routes to make our products and develop cheaper, efficient, environmentally friendly reagents. To meet these challenges we have to attract talented individuals (both male and female) into materials science. Everyone needs a hero who influences their career choice-in my field the names Robert B. Woodward and Elias J. Corey spring to mind-but we do need more Marie Curies!