What inspired you to be a scientist?
I’ve always been interested in science. My love for chemistry was perhaps related to my dad’s career. He was an engineer and secured a PhD in theoretical chemistry, but after a few years as an academic, he changed his career path to become a diplomat. He worked for the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), but was still involved in the science area. That was probably an inspiration to me as I was familiar with chemistry at home.
I found science easier at school than any other subject, but I did hesitate between chemistry and maths; I was so clumsy that I thought chemistry was perhaps not the best way forward. But chemistry was what I enjoyed the most and what I wanted to do. Chemistry is all about creativity and, as such, is somehow related to art: you create a molecule (useful or not!) and can endow it with a function. It’s a unique dimension to one particular subject.
What led you to fluorine chemistry?
There are two reasons why I decided to specialise in fluorine chemistry. The first is that when I started my academic career, I wanted to take on something different from all that I had done before. I had no expertise in fluorine chemistry. From a pragmatic approach, I felt that the fact that nobody else did fluorine chemistry in Oxford would be a nice way forward. I would find a niche area in the department that complemented what my colleagues were doing; it was also a way to bring in something unchallenged and to differentiate myself.
The second reason is that the range of applications is wide. It’s not only about developing new methods for fluorination, but also potential applications. Around 20% of the drugs on the market contain fluorine; this is a large proportion. Fluorine is used in more than drug discovery and medicine – it is used by the agrichemical industry, polymer industry, the materials science industry, in liquid crystals and for energy. Fluorine is a central element that gives you a lot of opportunities in terms of synthesis and catalysis, and you can tackle all kinds of applications with that unique element. Finally, fluorine is quite challenging to work with, so intellectually, it is very rewarding.
What’s the key research project currently being conducted in your lab?
In terms of synthesis, I try to address important reactivity related problems, for example allylic fluorination is a transformation we have been working on for a long time. There were indications in the literature that it might be really difficult to implement under transition metal catalysis. What motivates us is the idea that we can challenge such a hypothesis and in the process, increase our fundamental understanding of C–F bond activation and C–F bond formation. In terms of application, you could choose an important problem, for example how to synthesise F-DOPA from fluoride and a readily available precursor in five minutes at room temperature. Such a discovery could make an impact in the context of positron emission tomography, a molecular imaging technology used inter alia to diagnose diseases at an early stage of development. I think it’s our responsibility to contribute to major pragmatic problems, but it is equally critical to use such goals as a platform for reaction discovery, and to understand fundamental aspects of fluorine chemistry.
Is there one achievement that you are particularly proud of?
It’s always ‘my next paper’ that I am most interested in. To have recognised twelve years ago that fluorine chemistry is such an important area to work in makes me proud indeed, all the more so as I took that risk at the beginning of my career (having no expertise in the field). The fluorine community has been there forever. It’s a large community of very talented scientists doing fluorine chemistry in organic, inorganic and physical settings. What has been different in the past five years is that mainstream organic and inorganic chemists are taking fluorine chemistry onboard as an important research area. It is quite remarkable that at the BOSS XIII meeting [Belgian Organic Synthesis Symposium], there were three lectures on fluorine chemistry: Klaus Mueller with a fundamental aspect, Tobias Ritter with spectacular PET [positron emission tomography] imaging, and mine.
What is the next big challenge in your field?
As an academic, we should not lose track of how important it is to contribute to the fundamental understanding of one piece of chemistry. Although it is rewarding to go for the next big application and contribute to the welfare of mankind – and we should all have that as one of our major objectives – we should keep in mind that knowledge and education is part of it as well. Whatever area you are working in, you always have to keep in mind that one of our primary goals is to educate and inspire young people to do the best possible science.
Where do you look for ideas and what inspires you?
I am fortunate to be able to attend fantastic conferences. You learn things at conferences and you make connections that you would not be able to do if you were alone in an office. So it’s a matter of exposure to a lot of information, and somehow something crystallises, you put two and two together and something happens.
You clearly enjoy your job very much. What do you love most about it?
Being surrounded by young talented people from morning to evening is a treat. I am in a fantastic department and college, so what I truly enjoy about my job is working with amazing colleagues. The level of intellect at Oxford is remarkable – students and colleagues alike. People are so decent and supportive. I am extremely lucky and privileged to do what I am doing. I don’t take a single day for granted.
What would be your advice to the next generation of scientists?
Some young students plan their career years ahead; this is not the path I have taken. Be free-minded, follow your passion, work very hard and be patient. You cannot get what you want immediately. You just have to be patient and take opportunities when they arise as they may be life-changing experiences; don’t be blinded by what you did plan. My second piece of advice is to never compromise on quality, as this is never a way forward.
What do you enjoy doing when you have spare time?
I love walking with my dog Max and love anything that has to do with nature and natural sciences. I love jazz music too and I quite often go to a jazz club in London called Ronnie Scott’s, of which I am a member. One day, possibly close to or after retiring, I would like to contribute to education and peace in a more global way. Working for UNESCO may be an option, may be.