Ilan Marek is a professor at the Schulich Faculty of Chemistry, at the Technion – Israel Institute of Technology. He studied in France, received his PhD thesis in 1988 from the University Pierre et Marie Curie, Paris. After one year as a postdoctoral fellow, he obtained a research position at the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique (CNRS). Now at the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology, Marek’s group is focused on designing and developing new and efficient stereo- and enantioselective strategies for the synthesis of important complex molecular structures. The group wants to provide an answer to challenging synthetic problems but it has to be coupled with unique efficiency and elegance.
When did you decide to become a scientist and why?
I never actually decided to become a scientist, but I know when I decided to become a synthetic chemist. At university, I studied physics, chemistry, and biology and at some point, I took an organic synthesis class. I immediately fell in love with it: I’ve only studied this ever since!
What do you like the most about your job?
Organic synthesis is like being an architect at a molecular level. When looking at landmark buildings you can see if they are beautifully built. In synthesis you can see the same, you can tell when something is made in a beautiful manner. There’s a lot of room for art in science and I try to do my work as beautifully as I can. There are many ways to build molecules, so I let creativity decide how to build it in the most elegant, beautiful and efficient manner. Let your creativity go! If you do like everyone else, you’ll be like everyone else. If you are more creative you might be different, even if your idea is a bit crazy, that’s good. The spark of creativity is unique!
From your point of view, what are the most important areas in which funding should be spent on?
Funding should be spent on good research, no matter the area. I think we should help as much as we can young faculty members to get funding. In spite of all the admiration I have for oldest chemists, what they did belongs already to the past and we need to give the maximum of chances to the new generation of scientist to express themselves. We need to help them to achieve success, which is slightly more difficult when you start because you don’t have a network yet and no one knows your name. There’re a lot of opportunities to help: For instance, a group of chemists in which I belong as well as Antonio Echavarren have created a European workshop for young chemists where they share ideas, present their own work, discuss science and create networks. I think there should always be some funding reserved for new faculty members – based on academic excellence, of course!
Tell me about a time your failed
In science, I fail every day. When one tries to solve important questions, one has to be prepared to fail a certain number of times until he/she finds the key to the problem. It’s never easy to fail that much, but the point is to understand why we are failing and to improve ourselves; We learn more from failures than we learn from success. In addition, it puts things in perspective and teaches us to be modest!
We see many women studying chemistry at University including at PhD level; however, we do not see that many women working as researchers or academics. Why do you think that happens and what do you propose to change the situation?
Women are extremely good scientists, just as men. But I think they are more afraid of pursuing an academic career because they have way more responsibility than men outside the workplace. We men, as women’s partners in life, need to help them succeed and, therefore, take our share of things outside of work to really be equal, which right now is not always the case.
A chemical element: copper, because it does beautiful transformations.
Favourite scientist: can’t choose only one, so Albert Einstein, Victor Grignard, and Marie Curie.
Your favourite invention: the one that’s going to happen in a year or two from now!
If you had not been a scientist… I’d be a surgeon, where you use your hands and brain and save lives.
Favourite destination: New York, I like the atmosphere and the architecture, it’s gorgeous!
A book: a thriller, like the ones from Harlan Coben.
A movie: Cherry blossoms, by Doris Dörrie, it’s an extremely touching movie, I cried like a baby.
A dream: to succeed (in part) in my crazy ideas…
Science is… creativity and fun, it’s a wonderful job!