Interview: Chemistry’s winning formula

‘In 10 years no chemist will start an experiment without doing [computer] modelling or simulation,’ says Dominic Tildesley
Dominic Tildesley at the Royal Society of Chemistry, London

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“I’m proud to be a chemist and proud of chemistry,” says Dominic Tildesley. While such a declaration is hardly surprising from a man who has just taken over as president of the Royal Society of Chemistry (RSC), it does symbolise a growing confidence among chemical leaders as the field recovers from a difficult period.

Less than a decade ago the RSC, the UK’s professional body for chemists, was lamenting the closure of high profile university chemistry departments such as Exeter, Swansea and Queen Mary and King’s colleges in London, in the face of falling student demand. At the same time it seemed to be distancing itself from its origins, as its communications increasingly used the term “chemical sciences” and “chemical scientists” rather than “chemistry” and “chemists”.

Now, however, chemistry is five years or so into what appears to be a sustained revival. “More students want to study chemistry at undergraduate and PhD level, because they can see that it’s an exciting career,” Tildesley says. “No one is talking about closing chemistry departments today. On the contrary, universities like Lancaster and King’s [London] are investing in reopening theirs.”

The reasons for chemistry’s turnaround are hard to pin down but they include the impact of the recession when a practical science seemed to offer relatively good job prospects, together with initiatives by government and industry to emphasise sciences throughout the educational sector. It may be too much to hope that chemistry is cool at school but perhaps it is becoming less nerdy.

At this point I should declare my own emotional attachment to chemistry. My parents met as postdocs in a chemistry lab; my father enchanted me as a boy with simple home experiments (like putting a drop of blood into a test tube to catalyse a luminescent reaction that erupted in a glowing froth); and I myself enjoyed chemistry as an undergraduate (finishing with a research year whipping up molten sodium to catalyse organic synthesis).

The right mix

While chemistry is strengthening its identity, chemists are collaborating more with scientists in other fields on interdisciplinary research. Tildesley’s own career illustrates the point, he says, as we talk in the RSC’s elegant London headquarters in Burlington House, Piccadilly.

The first part of his career, in academia at Southampton and Oxford universities and Imperial College London, was in theoretical chemistry on the boundary with physics and computing – working out how atoms interact in chemical reactions. Then in 1998 Tildesley moved into industry where he stayed until 2012 in a series of increasingly senior research roles with Unilever. His interdisciplinary work there was more practical, blending chemistry with biology, materials science and engineering.

Tildesley’s current role, based in Lausanne, is director of the Centre Européen de Calcul Atomique et Moléculaire (European Centre for Atomic and Molecular Computing). He has been interested in chemical computing since his first summer job as an undergraduate, working at IBM’s Hursley lab near Winchester in 1972, when PCs were not even on the research agenda. So it is not surprising that he points to the transformational power of computers as one of the biggest changes in chemistry, in the recent past and in years to come.

“In 10 years no chemist will start an experiment or carry out a reaction without doing some modelling or simulation,” he says. “Computers are being designed to live and work in the lab.” In the end chemists will still have to do real reactions with wet chemicals in fume cupboards – “putting molecules into a tube and watching them change colour” – but they will have a far better idea how to make them work.

A related change is the impact of a wide range of new instruments that enable chemists to “see inside” solids, revealing their molecular structure. “And with the new atomic force microscopes you can directly put a finger on a molecule and push it around,” Tildesley says.

At the same time robotic techniques are transforming chemical synthesis, enabling researchers to make and test large numbers of compounds simultaneously. He admits that techniques such as “high-throughput screening” and “combinatorial chemistry” were over-hyped when introduced in the 1990s but says they are now fulfilling their initial promise.

A quite different change is taking place among the chemists themselves as the field is at last attracting and, more importantly, retaining an increasing number of women. “My predecessor Lesley Yellowlees made increasing diversity one of her key objectives as RSC president and I shall continue her drive,” he says. Practising what it preaches, the RSC governing council counts eight women out of 18 members. But the field as a whole still has some way to go before as many women as men can declare their pride as chemists.

Photographs: David Parry/PA/Royal Society of Chemistry; Dreamstime

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