Happy New Year everybody! I would like to take this opportunity to thank our loyal readers, and I hope you continue reading this interview series as well as Chem-Station this year. Starting this year off, we have Professor Atsushi Wakamiya, an Associate Professor in the Division of Structural Organic Chemistry at the Institute for Chemical Research in Kyoto University.
He was a former colleague of mine in university, and we got along very well. He is a very interesting character and is very passionate about chemistry—he is a chemist I look up to. Like last time, this is an interview about a young chemist, and I think there are many key players in the field among the younger generation who will spearhead Japanese chemistry in the near future. Please read on!
[su_dropcap size=”2″]Q[/su_dropcap] What made you choose chemistry as a career?
Even from my childhood, I was thinking that we only live life once—so might as well find a good job, and do a good job, such that I will be irreplaceable. In my first year of senior high school, I was reading a magazine called “Newton” in the summertime, and I remember being shocked by the science of light waves and color. All the different colors we see can be explained by the absorption of light waves by the particular object. From the next day on, everything I saw—any part of a landscape that jumped into my vision—felt different. I was fascinated by the fact that science can explain intriguing phenomena that surround me, and from then I decided to be a scientist. At first, I thought of heading into theoretical physics, and so I read many books on quantum mechanics and the theory of relativity. However, after a while, theoretical physics begs the question “what is at the edge of the universe?” and I felt that its main purpose became further and further from everyday life. I then became curious about molecular biology, particularly the part that explains the function of the brain. I became interested in the fact that the mere movement of molecules in the brain results in human emotions. Back then, Professor Susumu Tonegawa, who won the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine (in 1987), was being interviewed by a show on Nippon Hōsō Kyōkai (NHK). When I learned that Professor Tonegawa graduated from a chemistry department, I decided to dive into the field of molecules, chemistry.
I absolutely enjoyed every bit of my college days at Kyoto University. My decision to specialize in organic chemistry came from Professors Kouichi Ohe and Teruyuki Kondo (back then, they were assistant professor and professor, respectively), who taught me well in my laboratory classes. I don’t really remember working hard during those laboratory sessions but rather, I remember enjoying my conversations with those two professors. Maybe they were in their 30s at the time. They used to say things like “chemistry is really at the center of science, ya know?” and used to work really hard—they looked really cool. I think the presence of a few but admirable people is very important to attract the new generation of students into a particular field of study. Later on, when it was time to choose a laboratory, a senior student told me that the Uji campus (of Kyoto University) boasts the “treasures of the world, Tamao and Komatsu” and so I joined Professor Koichi Komatsu’s laboratory.
During my 6 years in the Komatsu lab, I was able to feel the excitement of chemistry research amid much scientific freedom, learning from Professor Komatsu as well as Professor Tohru Nishinaga (currently an Associate Professor at Chuo University). Thereafter, Professor Shigehiro Yamaguchi taught me the way of chemistry: as I was about to graduate from my Ph.D. program, Professor Yamaguchi, who had just moved from the Tamao laboratory (Kyoto University) to Nagoya University as the successor to Professor Noyori (Nobel Laureate 2001), took me in as his Assistant and taught me “the way to move research forward” over 7 years.
If you were not a chemist, what would you like to be, and why?
I saw a survey on Asahi Shimbun (dated July 31) in which it asked people over the age of 40,
“if you could be born again and choose to redo life starting from the age of 20, what would you like to be?”
The results of the survey were: #1, “university professor or researcher.” By the way, #2 was “medical doctor,” #3 was “lawyer,” and #4 was “pilot.” It seems like research is considered to be the envy of many, but actually, research is something that gets more interesting the more you put diligence and effort into it. I think that I would choose to be a chemist even if I were reborn.
However, if I were to choose something out of the many talents I do not possess, maybe I would be a singer—perhaps a singer-songwriter. Being under the spotlight in front of thousands of people and touching people through your songs must be a good feeling. Music contains the thoughts of people in any given era as it spreads through the world. I guess a singer that produces a million-selling single every year is like a scientist that keeps publishing in Nature or Science. The referees for singers are the people of the world—it’s really a peer-review system! (laughs)
Currently, what kind of research are you conducting? Moreover, how do you foresee its future development?
“The ever-increasing necessity of energy versus the dwindling hydrocarbon resources is a critical problem that needs to be solved if humans wish to continue developing civilization. As chemists, we need to seriously examine the challenge that we face as a society.” With this desire at heart, I am aiming for the efficient conversion of solar energy, which is an almost infinite source of energy. My first target is to create an “organic” solar battery using π-conjugated molecules as pigments. The solar energy that reaches the Earth’s surface contains not only visible light, but also about 50% of it as long-wavelength light (infrared and near-infrared). To efficiently transform solar energy, the development of π-conjugated molecules that can trap even the longer wavelengths of light becomes important. Furthermore, the efficient transformation of light into electrical energy using a solar battery requires the construction of molecules that optimizes charge separation after photo-excitation, charge injection into each electrode, as well as control of electric charge recombination. To approach this, I am trying to develop the “ultimate pigment” for organic solar batteries by designing a π-conjugated molecule that is carefully tuned in the extension of its π-orbitals and in its energy levels. From the standpoint of creating useful molecules in organic synthesis, I am battling day and night to create a breakthrough in solar battery development. In the future, I would also like to take solar energy and use that as the energy input to transform carbon dioxide into valuable carbon resources. If you could apply a photocatalyst to your roof and have methanol pouring out of your rain gutters, wouldn’t that be spectacular? (laughs)
Although designing molecules with a specific function (i.e., goal-oriented research) is important, I also think that pursuing research that is purely interesting from an academic standpoint with no immediate real-life applications (i.e., basic science research) is crucial. The real charm of studying synthetic organic chemistry is to serendipitously create molecules with unexpected structures or electronic properties. For this reason, I dream up new molecular structures every day, and I am working toward the synthesis of original π-conjugated molecules with unprecedented electronic properties.
If you could have dinner with any famous person from the past, who would it be, and why?
Einstein and Heisenberg, as well as Professor Yoshimasa Hirata. For Einstein and Heisenberg, I would like to hear their detailed thought processes leading up to the theory of relativity and uncertainty principle, respectively. As for Professor Hirata, he has mentored so many brilliant chemists of today, including Professors Koji Nakanishi, Yoshito Kishi, Daisuke Uemura, and Osamu Shimomura (and partially Professor Ryoji Noyori). I was unfortunately not able to meet him before his passing, and I have only heard of his legendary stories, so I would like to interact with him and learn about his secret to success, not only as a researcher but also as an educator.
When was the last time you performed an experiment in the laboratory, and what was it about?
Since I only recently started up my research group, I am at my laboratory bench almost every day with my senior undergraduate students. Regarding experiments such as X-ray crystal structure analysis or sealing glass test tubes using a vacuum line, I cannot allow my students to take over until I fully confer my mastership (laughs).
If you were stranded on a desert island, which book or song/piece of music would you like to have with you? Please single out your favorite example.
Is it the kind of situation where I am stranded on a desert island with absolutely zero money? Since one of my hobbies is fishing, I would rather think about what type of lure to bring in order to survive (laughs). For music, maybe I would choose works by Yutaka Ozaki, something I listened to a lot during my entrance exam studying days. I still feel like I can keep going with my power of youth whenever I listen to his music. As for recent books, I would choose “Beyond Oil and Gas: The Methanol Economy” by George A. Olah, Alain Goeppert, and G. K. Surya Prakash, but I don’t think that it would help me so much on a desert island where my life is at stake…
[su_dropcap size=”2″]Q[/su_dropcap] Do you have any suggestions as to whom we should interview next?
I would like to see interviews on Professors Lawrence T. Scott (Boston College), Atsuhiro Osuka (Kyoto University), Yasuhiro Uozumi (Institute for Molecular Science), Takahiro Sasamori (Kyoto University), and Hideki Yorimitsu (Kyoto University).
[su_box title=”Biographical sketch of Atsushi Wakamiya:”]Professor Atsushi Wakamiya obtained his B.Sc. in 1998 from the Undergraduate School of Industrial Chemistry in the Faculty of Engineering at Kyoto University. In 2003, he obtained his Ph.D. from the Graduate School of Engineering at Kyoto University (mentored by Professor Koichi Komatsu). He then became an Assistant, and an Assistant Professor thereafter, in the Department of Chemistry in the Graduate School of Science at Nagoya University (mentored by Professor Shigehiro Yamaguchi). In 2010, he became an Associate Professor at the Institute for Chemical Research in Kyoto University. He has obtained the Young Boron Chemist Award in 2008 and the CSJ Award for Young Chemists in 2009. [/su_box]
Japanese version written here on Jan 4, 2011 ; English translation written on June 24, 2014.