David MacMillan at University of Nebraska-Lincoln
Princeton University Professor of Chemistry, David MacMillan, chats about his research while on a visit to the University of Nebraska-Lincoln in October of 2015. Dr. MacMillan received the 2015 Hamilton Award.
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[00:00:03.460]>> PETA: Today we are here talking to Dr.
David MacMillan, 2015 Hamilton Awardee. Dr.
[00:00:10.690]MacMillan, thank you for joining us. So you
are basically seen as a hero in our eyes,
[00:00:17.510]and therefore, if you were a superhero, what
superhero would you be? What superpower would
[00:00:23.300]you want to have and how would you use that
superpower in chemistry?
[00:00:27.949]>> DAVID: Yeah, I would say that if it was
going to be doing something in chemistry,
[00:00:32.229]it would have to be Future Man, whoever Future
Man is. So Future Man would be someone who
[00:00:38.039]could look into the future a little bit, and
see basically what are the ideas or the concepts
[00:00:44.219]of things in chemistry, that people are not
thinking about right now. That if you could
[00:00:49.719]do them, it would be really useful, valuable
- people would be excited about doing it.
[00:00:55.190]So it's just this idea I've been able to tap
into what's about to happen next. That's the
[00:01:00.399]part that's pretty cool. So for me, that would
be Future Man, the guy that I would want to
[00:01:04.849]be, as dorky as that sounds.
[00:01:07.049]>> PETA: That is awesome. So, there is lot
of discussion about photo redox catalysis
[00:01:14.460]and how light a huge role plays in your organic
analysis research. What is the inspiring factor
[00:01:22.200]that made you feel like you should incorporate
light in your research?
[00:01:27.450]>> DAVID: Well, I think initially, to be completely
honest about it, it was not something that
[00:01:35.159]we sat down and said alright, we need to get light into our research. As soon
[00:01:39.450]as we do that, this is going to lead into
this huge field, is going to be incredibly
[00:01:43.829]exciting. It was a case where we're trying
to solve a completely different problem. And
[00:01:48.610]we came up with a way of saying, you know
if we use photo redox, which really hadn't
[00:01:52.899]been used that much, if at all, for organic
chemistry - it had been used a little bit
[00:01:57.790]in the eighties and a little bit in the nineties
- we said if we use this, we should be able
[00:02:01.509]to solve this one very specific problem. And
so we did it and it worked. And it was great
[00:02:05.930]and as soon as we did it, as soon as we started
using light in photo redox, we started to
[00:02:10.310]realize there were all these other applications
that we could start to use it for, which was
[00:02:13.750]good. And then two, three, four years later,
we start to see all these other directions
[00:02:18.890]you can start to think about using it. At
the same time, all these other people did
[00:02:22.360]too and that was great. So there were all
these different people around the world thinking
[00:02:25.740]about doing this, which made it really exciting
because it's nice to be involved in a research
[00:02:30.380]program that you enjoy. There's lots of other
people doing it too makes it really fun, because
[00:02:35.510]you can get together and talk about it, see
all the directions that they have taken it.
[00:02:39.380]And so it wasn't really a case of we sat down
and said from day one, yeah this is going
[00:02:43.000]to be this huge area. It was more a fact that
we study doing it and then realized there
[00:02:48.990]are all these different directions that we
could take it.
[00:02:50.690]>> PETA: It's amazing. So other than photo
redox catalysis, what other than that would
[00:02:57.510]you think is the grand challenge that chemists
are facing today.
[00:03:01.230]>> DAVID: I mean I would say that of what
we do, the grand challenge is the number one
[00:03:05.510]challenge is conversion of sunlight into chemical
bonds. This idea of it, can you be able to
[00:03:12.420]take the energy from the sun and conserve
it some way so that you can utilize it on
[00:03:16.590]demand for Earth. Right, that's one of the
grand challenges and that's certainly something
[00:03:22.600]that a lot of people know about. In terms
of grand challenges that no one discusses,
[00:03:27.270]and the ones I think about, my biggest interest
I think will be a big deal for chemistry going
[00:03:33.450]forward, is the idea of how you take the basic
units of all these molecules that we have
[00:03:38.350]right now and use them to inherently do coupling
reactions or bond forming processes, that
[00:03:44.460]no one is thinking about doing right now.
We are chemistry in that we are fueled to
[00:03:49.060]set up, is set up pretty well, where we have
these specific functional groups that are
[00:03:55.100]artificially installed in molecules, so we
can enable molecules to join together. And
[00:04:00.270]that's good, but it'd be so much better if
you could take all the existing functionality
[00:04:05.110]and just use that instead. At the moment,
the rules of chemistry are not written such
[00:04:09.400]that you can do that. So we want to go in
and hopefully change some of the rules and
[00:04:14.050]allow us to really think about using nato-functionality
to allow molecules to be brought together.
[00:04:20.500]>> PETA: So I see that have written many papers
- over a hundred, some of them chapters, some
[00:04:28.950]books - I would love to know how you balance
your time with your personal life and work.
[00:04:35.600]>> DAVID: I make everybody else do all the
[00:04:38.370]>> DAVID: No, basically, how do I balance
my life, I think I'm in pretty privileged
[00:04:45.720]position. I think I've been lucky to be surrounded
by, throughout my whole career, amazing co-workers
[00:04:54.780]who drive the research to much great extents
than I ever do, so they do that part. In terms
[00:04:59.840]of being the boards and consulting and all
those other things, it's been remarkable to
[00:05:04.630]be involved in all these great people around
the world who would bring you in and sit you
[00:05:08.620]down and say give us your advice on these
things or your views on that. And remarkably,
[00:05:13.220]they even listen to it sometimes. To me, it's
not really a balance as much as it's a kind
[00:05:20.490]of fun, curiosity thing. If you think about
it, for me, I love sports. So I spend a lot
[00:05:26.680]of time listening to it, thinking about watching
sports. And it's easy and you automatically
[00:05:31.250]you do it and you think about it because you
enjoy it. And it's the same for chemistry,
[00:05:34.810]if you feel the same way which I do, and then
you just do it without even thinking about
[00:05:39.800]it. It's a fun thing to be involved with and
it never feels like work, never feels like
[00:05:44.860]a hardship. It just feels like something you
are genuinely excited to be doing.
[00:05:49.110]>> PETA: So, do you have any advice to give
to grad students who, you know, are planning
[00:05:53.840]on graduating soon?
[00:05:55.650]>> DAVID: My advice, and it's the same advice
I give to people all the time is kind of simple,
[00:06:01.270]but it's do what you want to do and don't
do necessarily what your advisor wants you
[00:06:06.170]to do or your lab mates want you to do or
your mom or your grandma or anyone. Think
[00:06:12.920]about what is really you're excited about,
what it is that gets you up in the morning
[00:06:17.630]and sort of follow that and do that. And if
you continue to just go after all those things;
[00:06:22.490]things will typically work out pretty well.
I sometimes worry that people too often fall
[00:06:30.139]in a trap of doing what's expected of them
and it's so much more fun to not do that.
[00:06:34.900]Just go wherever you want to go.
[00:06:36.389]>> PETA: That is true. Okay, so I have the
big question. You have been here all of yesterday
[00:06:43.160]and you're here this morning again with us.
How would you describe your tours and your
[00:06:47.790]talk with students and faculty?
[00:06:49.530]>> DAVID: So, I came here, I've never been
in Nebraska before, I had no idea what to
[00:06:55.200]expect. The thing that sort of caught me off
guard was the energy of the place. People
[00:07:00.790]here are so like you - they're bouncy, they're
jazzy, they want to talk, and they want to
[00:07:05.060]hear about things. There's a lot of excitement,
people are incredibly friendly, but at the
[00:07:11.010]same time, really, really, easy to talk to.
But the number one thing for me has been energy.
[00:07:16.430]There's just been a real strong energy. Everyone
you talk to here are excited about what they're
[00:07:21.600]doing, they want to tell you what they're
doing and they want to talk about what you're
[00:07:24.480]doing too. So from that point, it's been,
for me, a really fun trip. A really fun trip.
[00:07:29.000]>> PETA: So did you think that you were going
to come and see cornfields? And then you saw
[00:07:32.210]all these huge buildings?
[00:07:33.430]>> DAVID: Exactly. So no, I came here, I had
no idea what I was going to expect. And the
[00:07:40.410]architecture here is fantastic.
[00:07:41.690]>> PETA: It's amazing.
[00:07:43.200]>> DAVID: It's beautiful, right? All these
different buildings and that was wonderful.
[00:07:47.560]And the other part was meeting the Hamilton
family, which was pretty cool, I thought.
[00:07:51.580]It's really awesome when you can see people;
that their father and grandfather spent so
[00:07:58.060]much time caring about this place. And you
can see that keeps going, keeps moving forward,
[00:08:03.419]that it's part of the fabric of this institution.
And to see these people and interact with
[00:08:07.820]them, that was pretty cool.
[00:08:08.860]>> PETA: Well, thank you Dr. MacMillan, we
are very happy to have you join us and be
[00:08:13.830]a part of our family.
[00:08:15.050]>> DAVID: Thank you so much, Peta.
[00:08:15.900]>> PETA: We wish you all the best.
[00:08:16.650]>> DAVID: Thank you.
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