Professor Polly Arnold holding an f-orbital, one of the atomic
orbitals that hold the outermost electrons in
compounds made from f-block elements.

I make unusual molecules from the metals at the bottom of
the periodic table. We don’t know enough about their bonding,
and the more unusual the molecule, the better we are able
to challenge preconceptions, and improve our understanding
of their behaviours. This is important as many of the metals
are technology-critical elements that find use in wind-turbine
magnets, whilst others are present as unwanted radioactive
isotopes in spent nuclear fuel.

Professor Polly Arnold

I have always wanted to do something different. When I was younger, I was frustrated that there were so many things about chemistry that I had to memorise, rather than be able to explain from a general understanding of chemical periodicity. As I grew up, I realised that it was because no one could explain these behaviours. I find enormous satisfaction in making molecules that are not meant to exist, that do not obey the rules. These are the ones that teach us about nature, and prompt interesting collaborations. Some of these will be with spectroscopists who are trying to analyse complicated real-world systems. Others will be with computational chemists who are trying to make their models clever enough to predict the future of hard-to-handle systems such as nuclear waste.

I do a lot of my thinking when I’m completely alone, ideally on a Scottish hillside, in the cold, low-angled, winter sunshine, when I have the luxury of time to sift through everything that’s cramming my brain. This works best when my brain has been pre-filled with numerous disparate concepts and reagents from research articles from different scientific disciplines.

Polly is holding an f-orbital, one of the atomic orbitals that hold the outermost electrons in compounds made from f-block elements.


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