Published: 24.02.11

“There’ll always be questions in chemical research”

ETH-Zurich professor Franziska Schoenebeck simulates chemical reactions on the computer to understand and refine them better. These are then followed by experimental tests in the lab, she says in an interview for the “International Year of Chemistry”.

Interview: Peter Rüegg
Franziska Schoenebeck, an assistant professor of physical-organic chemistry (photo: courtesy of F. Schoenebeck)
Franziska Schoenebeck, an assistant professor of physical-organic chemistry (photo: courtesy of F. Schoenebeck) (large view)

What do you regard as chemistry’s greatest achievement or most important discovery?
Franziska Schoenebeck: There have been so many important and fascinating achievements; I haven’t got any specific favourites. But a quote by Ralph Waldo Emerson does spring to mind: “Chemistry began by saying it would change the baser metals into gold. By not doing that, it has done much greater things”.

What do you focus on in your research and what aspects of it are evident or usable in everyday life?
We explore how and why reactions actually take place the way they do. Based on our findings, we then try to improve the conversions. For detailed research, we use computer programmes that help us to see the molecules react; otherwise, such details are difficult to register; after all, we’re talking about scales that are a billionth of a person and processes that take place 10,000 times more quickly than the current world 100-metre-sprint record! Such theoretical considerations then automatically spawn ideas for further developments, which we realise with experiments in the lab.

Have you got a role model in chemistry? If so, who and why this person?
I haven’t got a role model as such but a few personal heroes. When one of these heroes, Nobel-Prize winner Roald Hoffmann, patiently answered my barrage of questions in several emails, it was definitely a special moment. I thought it was fabulous at the time.

How will your research field develop? Where does the potential lie?
There’ll always be questions in chemical research. The issues will change with time and be adapted to the new challenges of the age. What fills me with confidence is the fact that the tools we use for our research, such as the computers, are becoming increasingly more powerful. For instance, the molecules we observe will become increasingly bigger and more complex, and we’ll be able to examine them with greater accuracy than today and thus predict their properties better and better. I can’t wait!

About the person

Franziska Schoenebeck has been an assistant professor of physical-organic chemistry at ETH Zurich’s Laboratory of Organic Chemistry since February 2010. Before that, she worked as a post-doc at the University of California, Los Angeles, for two years and did a PhD in Glasgow from 2004 to 2007. She is originally from Berlin.

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