Speaker interview, 33rd Process Development Symposium: Michael Willis

4 Mar 2016

Michael Willis is Professor of Organic Chemistry at the University of Oxford and has recently been awarded the 2015 Process Chemistry Award. He will be a speaker at the upcoming 33rd SCI Process Development Symposium (Wednesday 6 - Friday 8 April, University of Cambridge) and is a member of SCI’s Fine Chemicals Group, Young Chemists’ Panel and Bristol and South West Group.

What sparked your interest in science?
Science lessons at school. I had some great teachers who managed to convey the idea of discovering and understanding very well. I loved seeing an unusual event, but them being able to explain what was going on.

What keeps you interested?
Trying to create unusual events; getting a reaction to work that doesn’t look possible.

What do you think are the main challenges facing scientists working in this area?
Communicating the challenges of the field and showing how they are relevant, to both the public and to policy makers.

What has been the highlight of your career to date?
It is very hard to pick one. Every time we get a key result that becomes the main achievement, but with science that soon moves on and the next challenge becomes the next big thing. It never stops.

Would you have done anything differently?

What would someone at the start of the career need to do to achieve what you have?
I think pursuing something that you are deeply interested in and believe in, is crucial. And then keep trying when it doesn’t work.

If you had not pursued a career in this field, what would you have done?
When applying to university I was torn between chemistry and maths. It might have been interesting to see what would have happened if I had chosen differently.

I understand that you have just been awarded the 2015 Process Chemistry Award and will be giving a presentation at the 33rd SCI Process Development Symposium this year (6 - 8 April 2015 in Cambridge). What led you to become interested in the area of process chemistry in particular?
In some respects a lot of catalysis research lends itself to the ideas of process chemistry. In particular, we have been interested for quite a while in the idea of using readily available feedstocks and transforming them into valuable products using only very small amounts of simple catalysts. Doing this with user-friendly conditions and generating only minimal waste have also featured as goals of ours. These sort of ideas overlap nicely with some of the challenges of process chemistry.

You were previously Chair of SCI’s Young Chemists’ Panel and are now a committee member on SCI’s Fine Chemicals Group. What led you to become involved in SCI activities and what do you gain from your involvement?
Being involved with both the YCP and the FCG has been a great way to interact with scientists from a broad range of industries and interests, and to hear about their challenges. Developing focused, topical, scientific meetings is also good fun, and allows me (us) the chance to push topics or areas of science that I think are important, or are going to be so.

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