Neil Champness tells Nicola Nugent about putting molecules in their place
|Neil Champness is the professor of chemical nanoscience at the University of Nottingham, UK. He currently chairs the CrystEngComm editorial board and the RSC Chemical Nanoscience and Nanotechnology Interest Group. His research covers all aspects of molecular organization and supramolecular chemistry.
Why did you to become a scientist?
It was just because I was good at it rather than because I particularly liked it as a subject. I had a stronger preference for history and politics, but I was better at science and I have a firm belief that you should do what you're good at for the benefit of other people. It was relatively late in my career - probably during my PhD - that I really became interested in chemistry and started to enjoy it.
What kind of research do you work on?
"I believe that you should try to achieve big goals and if you can solve a problem all on your own, then maybe your problem's not big enough"
- Neil Champness
It's all about molecular organisation - putting molecules where you want molecules to be. That has an impact on all kinds of other areas. For example, we work on organising chemical species on surfaces, with a direct goal being molecular computing. In the solid-state, we work on three-dimensional structures with cavities within them that can be used to organise other molecules. The target there is hydrogen storage. I'm known as a nanoscientist, and formally, I'm part of the inorganic section of a chemistry department, but at least half of my group does organic chemistry and a lot of the collaborations we have are with physicists. I don't really hold to the organic, inorganic, physical view of the world.
Are more researchers starting to work in that interdisciplinary way?
I hope so. I believe that you should try to achieve big goals and if you can solve a problem all on your own, then maybe your problem's not big enough. That's the reason for interdisciplinarity. Hydrogen storage is a huge task. It could help solve the world's energy problem, and you can't solve the world's energy problem on your own. A limited view of chemistry as a sub-discipline doesn't fit with modern chemistry as a subject.
'Nano' has become a real buzzword, but isn't all chemistry nanoscience?
I don't agree with the concept that all chemistry is nanoscience. When you're doing a reaction in a test-tube, you might be doing a chemical transformation on individual molecules, but you're dealing with huge numbers of molecules all at the same time. Once you start to look at molecular scale images, such as STM images of surfaces, you see every single thing that goes wrong - defects or places where a molecule is missing. You see a different level of chemistry and there are significant differences with trying to work at that level. So although chemistry clearly underpins a lot of nanoscience and nanotechnology, not all chemistry is nanoscience.
Why do you think that all things 'nano' attract so much attention?
I do a lot of public engagement work, discussing nanotechnology. In my experience, the public tend to get excited about nanotechnology at the more far-fetched end of it - the nanorobots side of things. I don't see that necessarily as a bad thing. I completely disagree with Prince Charles's 'grey goo' comment, but at least by raising awareness, it gives scientists the opportunity to go out there and refute it. People know what we're talking about because they've heard the 'grey goo' comment or they've seen nanotechnology in films. The possibilities of nanotechnology, like nanorobots, molecular computing and nanomedicine, are what raise people's excitement about nanoscience.
What is the secret to a successful research group?
"Ultimately science and politics have the same goal of trying to make the world a better place"
- Neil Champness
Good students and postdocs - it's all about them. Any professor will say that you gradually get further removed from what your research group actually does on a day-to-day basis. The real role of a professor is to try to inspire the group.
Do you find that rewarding?
Yes, it's great having students who are inspired and enjoy what they do. It's pretty amazing to see a student or a postdoc take a project in a particular direction and get excited about what they've achieved. That's the best bit!
What are some of the challenges facing young researchers in the UK today?
For young people trying to get their first lectureship, it concerns me how few positions are available. It's very difficult to take that first step. Beyond, of course, that there are issues with funding and the pressures of the RAE [research assessment exercise].
What sort of impact has the RAE had on research?
I do try to blank it out, but it's virtually impossible. You're always thinking about what you're going to put forward for the RAE. I've been fortunate over the last RAE period - my research has been successful and money has followed it. In chemistry as a whole, it does affect how some people do their research and it clearly affects how people publish their research. Impact Factor has become more important, whether it's actually relevant or not. As far as I'm aware Impact Factor is not actually involved in the RAE, but that doesn't stop people obsessing about it, which I don't think is a profitable use of people's time
Which scientist do you most admire and why?
I enjoy reading about molecular machines, and Fraser Stoddart does amazing work in that field. Richard Feynman was a very insightful man. He was saying more than 40 years ago that nanotechnology was going to come along at some point - which is a remarkable prophecy.
Who has been most influential on your career?
One person is Bill Levason, who was my PhD supervisor at Southampton. He's a fantastic chemist and quite astonishing to work for in many ways.
What would you do if you weren't a scientist?
I'd be a politician - no doubt at all. I have a great interest in politics and I'm a member of a political party. Ultimately science and politics have the same goal of trying to make the world a better place.