Interview with Robin Perutz

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Following undergraduate study at Cambridge, Robin Perutz investigated the structure of metal carbonyl fragments for his PhD under J. J. Turner, FRS. After a postdoc in Mülheim, he held fixed term “demonstratorships” in Edinburgh and Oxford, before moving to York in 1983 as a Lecturer where he was promoted to a professorship in 1991. He was appointed as Royal Society – British Gas Senior Research Fellow from 1987–1994. He served as President of Dalton Division of RSC (2007–2010) and as Head of Department in York (2000–2004). He was awarded the Tilden (1992) and Nyholm (2005) Medals of RSC, the Sacconi Medal of the Italian Chemical Society in 2008 and the Franco-British Medal of the French Chemical Society in 2009. He became a Fellow of the Royal Society, the UK's national academy, in 2010. He was a member of Athena Swan Steering Group for support of Women in Science and is now on the HE-STEM Disability Committee, a national group aiming to ease the path for disabled science students.

Do you remember what it felt like to publish your first ChemComm article?

My first ChemComm (J. Chem. Soc., Chem. Commun., 1975, 157) reported one of the most satisfying parts of my PhD. It brought me together as author with my supervisor, Jim Turner and two other members of the research group who had done so much to help me. Jim was so keen on these experiments that he insisted on doing them with me, something he had never done before. Martyn Poliakoff, now of green chemistry fame, brought brilliant design of the experiments, and Jeremy Burdett gave remarkable theoretical insight. Jeremy went on to become Chair of the Chemistry Department in Chicago but died far too young. I was studying the complex of methane with coordinatively unsaturated 16-electron Cr(CO)5, which I made photochemically by ejecting CO from Cr(CO)6 in a methane matrix. In the experiments for the ChemComm paper, we used polarised light for photolysis and polarised light for detection. The extraordinary result was that we could make the molecules turn over in the matrix. But what did it tell us about the photochemical mechanism? Did they really rotate? Jeremy had the answer.

How has your research evolved from your first to your most recent article?

I still like to study mechanisms and continue to believe that fundamental studies are essential. There is no matrix isolation any more and little IR spectroscopy, but lots of NMR and more collaboration than ever with theorists. For a long time, we have been making our own new complexes in the group. We look at activation of a whole range of bonds: C–F, B–H, Si–H, C–H and in the latest ChemComm C–O. We use pulsed lasers for time-resolved spectroscopy in solution and for irradiating inside an NMR spectrometer. In my PhD, I was just using group 6 metal carbonyls; now I try to spread my work across many transition metals and many ligands so I can obtain a wide-ranging picture of reactivity. In the past few years, I have become very passionate about solar energy conversion and use my experience to improve photochemical reduction of CO2. I have several very long-standing collaborations in the UK, France and the USA which allow us to access more techniques and to put several minds together on the bigger problems.

What do you like most about publishing in ChemComm?

The referees for my latest ChemComm were very good—they spotted a mistake in my experimental design and they told me to go back and collect more data. I used to wait too long before publishing – they were telling me that I was in too much of a hurry now! Once accepted, I could hardly keep up with the editorial and production process, it went so fast.

What aspect of your research are you most excited about at the moment?

Just now I'm trying to do time-resolved NMR together with my colleague Simon Duckett, irradiating with a pulsed laser and detecting by NMR. If we can turn NMR into a tool for fast reactions like time-resolved IR spectroscopy, it would be fantastic.

What is the best part of your job?

Of course, I really like to put my own stamp on the chemistry. One favourite was measurement of the rates of oxidative addition of hydrogen and finding that some of the reactions went as fast as any reaction could go, even though the H–H bond was broken and two metal hydrogen bonds were made and the shape of the molecule changed. But what ranks equally high is seeing former members of my research group turn into outstanding professional scientists and thinking that maybe I had something to do with it.

What is the secret to success in scientific publishing?

I like to find myself a niche where there aren't too many others in the game, but others prefer a more competitive style. I try to gather enough data for a really good splash rather than carving publications into many pieces.

What is your advice to young emerging scientists?

The first part of my advice is for the heads of department and research councils: give the emerging scientists independence to go their own way. I have also become committed to support for those with disabilities. Did you realise that two of Britain's chemistry Nobel laureates suffered from profound disabilities? Are there opportunities for emerging scientists with disabilities? Also, make sure you are doing your best to smooth the career route for women scientists. For the emerging scientists: don't think it's all been done – there are some huge challenges still. The big targets often require a combination of fundamental and applied research and many disciplines. So try to forge the collaborations and play your part.

What do you do in your spare time?

I like to get out into the country for walks, and turn myself into an amateur naturalist. All the better if there are some mountains to go up and down. A camera and binoculars are my indispensable gadgets.

By the time I'm 100 I would like to have…

If only I could contribute in some practical way to the problem of how to use the sun's energy to make fuels. There is no more pressing issue.

This journal is © The Royal Society of Chemistry 2014