Posted on December 2, 2012October 12, 2018 by Kira Marie WalshFaculty Spotlight: Chris Scarborough Chris Scarborough. Photo by Jessica Lily Photography. Chris Scarborough joined the Emory University Department of Chemistry faculty in Fall of 2011. He earned his Ph.D. from University of Wisconsin-Madison in the lab of Shannon Stahl working on asymmetric catalysis of N-heterocyclic carbenes. He then worked as a post-doc at the Max Planck Institute in Germany studying chromium complexes with unusual electronic structures and analyzing them using various spectroscopies for paramagnetic transition metal compounds. Q: Why did you find chemistry interesting? CS: What I liked about chemistry- was that I could understand things at a very fundamental level, or at least at the time what I thought was a very fundamental level. I could draw organic reaction mechanisms that made sense. I could explain why these compounds form and why reactions go this way and that way and I really liked that. I love that in chemistry, you have the opportunity to make unique compounds with unique properties. Q: Why did you choose to focus on inorganic chemistry? CS: I looked around at some of the major homogenous industrial processes, like the Wacker oxidation, the LP Oxo Process, and the Monsanto and Cativa acetic acid processes, and thought that it was a bit silly that these use some of the rarest elements in the earth’s crust (and the most expensive, of course). Why do we have to use rhodium, iridium, and palladium? Why do they work and why do their abundant congeners, Ni and Co especially, why do these fail in these processes? I knew that to understand why, I had to learn about the electronic structure of these complexes. Q: If witness protection required you to make a career change-what would you pick as a second career? CS: I thought I might pick being an ambassador to a European country and live a good life, but I realized that if I’m under witness protection that’s probably a little too public! I always really loved history and if I hadn’t been good in science, I would have really enjoyed history, being a history major. Q: As a teacher, or in a political role? CS: I probably would’ve gone towards professorship and done research in history. Q: What was your favorite part of being a grad student or a post-doc? CS: My favorite part was the first two years of my Ph.D. and the first year of my post-doc. This is where the learning curve is so steep. It’s really-actually, it’s exhausting. Q: That doesn’t seem like the good part! That’s the painful part. Everything fails; you don’t know anything; you don’t know what you’re doing. CS: (laughing) Yes, that’s right, but the amount that you learn when you’re on that steep part of the learning curve is just unbelievable. You start to see the world differently; you see everything through new eyes. Then once you level off and you start becoming highly productive now that you’ve learned this stuff, your world-view or your view of science isn’t changing so drastically but you’re generating interesting data. That’s fun as well, but I really love a good challenge. Q: What research is your lab focused on? CS: In some respects, I’m still intrigued by the same problem. Why are rhodium and palladium special in homogenous catalysis? I have a few things that I’ve learned that I think I could point to. They’re all fundamental electronic structure things and so what we’re doing is we’re playing tricks, essentially, with the orbital shapes and sizes and electron interactions. Q:By playing with the ligands? CS: That’s right, by synthetic design. A lot of it is ground-state engineering. One of the projects we do is a photochemistry project, and I like to refer to that as excited-state engineering because we have to know all about the excited states and be able to tune them, which is not very easy. Tuning ground states is hard enough. The major problem that we’re trying to solve is replacement of these precious-metal catalysts with earth-abundant catalysts. Q: Which chemist would you most like to see win the Nobel Prize? CS: That’s a hard question. I think if I had to pick someone it would be Harry Gray. He’s amazing, he’s a wonderful person, and his research has spanned a lot of different areas. He’s absolutely one of the founding members of inorganic chemistry in the last century. A phenomenal guy, phenomenal research-starting as a classical inorganic chemist and thinking about ligand field theory (he helped develop that theory, molding MO theory and crystal field theory) to develop our understanding of transition metal complexes. All the way to long-distance electron transfer in proteins, how biology deals with electron transfer. He’s pretty phenomenal and now he’s working on, of course, the energy problem, water splitting.