Prof Ben Feringa is one of the 2016 Nobel Laureates in Chemistry. He has made seminal contributions to the field of asymmetric (chiral) carbon chemistry, especially the synthesis of molecular switches and motors. Prof Feringa is the Jacobus van't Hoff Distinguished Professor of Molecular Sciences at the Stratingh Institute for Chemistry at the University of Groningen in the Netherlands. He is also an Academy Professor and Chair of the Board of the Science Division of the Royal Netherlands Academy of Sciences.
Prof Feringa studied chemistry as an undergraduate and doctoral student at the same institute, after which he spent six years as a researcher for Shell before returning to the world of academic research. Inspired by Nature's mechanisms of molecular self-assembly, he focuses on using synthetic chemistry to create novel molecular structures, systems and machinery with exciting new functions and applications.
In this conversation, he shares his inspiring life journey and the secret of staying motivated in academic research.
“The Nobel Prize is analogous to an Olympic medal. Simply dreaming about a medal at the Olympics does not result in success. Talented people need to train day in and day out, and twice as hard as anyone else for a shot at the medal. And maybe, if they have a good day, and are lucky, they will get a medal.”
What fascinates you about science, and why should people study it? How can we encourage the new generation to choose to study and practise science?
For me, science is all about making new discoveries and gaining insights, which help to learn more about fundamental processes we haven’t yet thought about, or fully understood. There is great joy in learning new things – whether in the natural sciences, applied sciences or in humanities. In order to encourage the new generation to take up sciences, children must be inspired and intellectually stimulated in the classroom during their school years. Giving them space to foster their creativity is essential. Though formal teaching is needed to build a firm theoretical foundation, there needs to be a little extra effort, in terms of small experiments, projects or field trips.
How do we get society to be interested and excited about science? Do you still go to local schools to share your enthusiasm for science? What outreach activities do you do?
It is crucial to show people that science exists in everything around us-from the interplay between colours in a beautiful painting to cellular phone technology! Just looking at the world around us is enough to capture our interest. Simple questions like ‘why insects can crawl on walls’ lead us to think about fundamental scientific principles for example. We need to ignite the spark of curiosity in children.
I have been visiting schools since a long time. However, after being awarded the Nobel Prize, the number of visits has definitely increased. I do quite a few talks for children in elementary schools, high schools, gymnasia (grammar schools) and universities. Recently, I was in Stockholm, where I gave a lecture to 350 high school students from all over Sweden. It was a wonderful experience, especially as the young students are very excited and ask a lot of very interesting questions.
How important are good teachers when it comes to cultivating an interest for science?
I had fantastic teachers, and they played a decisive role in my choice to study science. My physics and chemistry teacher was a very stimulating person. He encouraged us to go beyond the textbooks, challenged us with good questions and sparked our curiosity by showing us experiments. This intense confrontation and hands-on experience with science really helped us to get closer to science and motivated us to learn more. Last year, I met my school teacher at a reunion (after being awarded the Nobel Prize), and he said “I wish every child gets at least one good teacher in his or her life.” In my opinion good teachers are crucial.
My interest in the natural sciences at school led me to study chemistry at the University of Groningen, after which I did my doctoral research under the supervision of Prof Dr Hans Wynberg. He was American and always used to encourage, challenge and excite his students. Prof Wynberg often used to say to us, “This is a very difficult problem. If we solve this, our American friends will be very jealous!” For example, if you are a soccer player and want to play against FC Barcelona, then you need to train, and be challenged to become the best! This sort of an atmosphere in our group was very good for me.
How did you get into science? Did your parents have an impact on your interest in science? What was your family background and childhood like?
My foray into science started during my childhood. I grew up with nine brothers and sisters on a farm in the rural part of northern Holland. I used to observe natural phenomena around me and would always ask my father basic questions like "How is it that such a tiny seed eventually grows into a large, beautiful sunflower?" I was always fascinated by the way Mother Nature operates; why certain things occur in nature and what makes them behave in the way they do. At high school ‘the gymnasium’, I studied natural sciences since I enjoyed studying mathematics, physics and chemistry. Chemistry, in particular, really excited me because I could make nice crystals, compounds which smelled fragrant or foul and chemicals which had different colours!
How did you get into the research area you are in today?
I studied organic and inorganic chemistry at university, and then began my research in the area of organic chemistry. The ability to create new compounds, and one’s own molecular world is something chemists can do. As a chemist, you can study and analyse molecules which have been created in the past, but you can also create completely new compounds which have never been made before!
A particular story comes to my mind: When I was a third year undergraduate student at university, I vividly remember running full of excitement into my supervisor’s office at quarter to five in the afternoon with an NMR spectrum (NMR is an analytical technique to identify molecular compounds) of a completely new molecule, which I had made. The molecule was useless, but I was the first person in the world to have made it! The exhilaration of doing this was just like writing a new poem or a piece of music. There is great joy in creation.
In the most general sense, what do you work on in the moment, and why and how does your research benefit humanity?
My group uses synthetic chemistry to create new structures, functions and chemical systems. We are inspired by nature's mechanisms of working. Our group tries to use those principles to create new molecules for catalysis (which make chemical processes faster and more efficient), and for molecules capable of transport and motion. The latter involves molecular switches and motors, which have the potential to create smart medicines, self-healing materials (like paints which automatically repair themselves after scratching) and self-cleaning windows or surfaces. The latter is particularly helpful for solar panels to retain high efficiency even if there is dust or sand accumulation on the surface.
We read that you worked for Royal Dutch Shell as a Research Chemist and then as a Project Leader. What made you want to go back to academia after your stint in industry? What is the beauty of the academic world?
After completing my PhD, I wanted to go to the United States of America to conduct post-doctoral research, but Shell offered me a research job with a very good salary and benefits, which I accepted. I also stayed in the UK for some time while working at Shell Laboratories at Kent. In those days, Shell’s research facilities were huge, and well-funded. It used to be quite like laboratories in a big university. Though I enjoyed my experience at Shell and learnt a lot about industrial processes, I was more excited about making fundamental discoveries and that is why I became an academic researcher. In addition to this, I truly enjoy teaching and the interactions with students and a university environment makes me happier. I have no regrets. Nevertheless, I have always collaborated on projects with industry throughout my career, though my focus is still on answering fundamental questions.
Do you personally feel research should foster entrepreneurial ventures?
Yes. It is crucial for the younger generation to take risks and start companies to monetise their ideas. Not enough young people do it. We do encourage our students to be entrepreneurial and work on their ideas, but many just want safe jobs. There is a lot they can learn from their colleagues in the USA. Young people must take risks and try new things. It is not a shame to fail sometimes .
For me, quitting a safe and well-paid job at Shell to become an academic was a huge risk. I got paid less, had to fight for research funding through grants and there was no guarantee that my ideas would work or that I would actually make any new discoveries.
How has your life changed after receiving the Nobel prize? How did it feel? Have you received more attention for your work, especially with regard to the public? Do you speak a lot in public about your work?
The Nobel Prize is a great honour- not only for me, but also for many generations of students who have worked on this problem over the course of 30 years. It isn’t something I ever expected to win in my career! I just worked with my group trying to make new path breaking discoveries in the field we were working in. These days, a similar buzz is for discoveries in gene editing, such as CRISPR-Cas9. They will also probably win a Nobel Prize in the near future.
The Nobel Prize is analogous to an Olympic medal. Simply dreaming about a medal at the Olympics does not result in success. Talented people need to train day in and day out, and twice as hard as anyone else for a shot at the medal. And maybe, if they have a good day, and are lucky, they will get a medal.
Of course, my life has changed after winning the Nobel Prize. I now get so many invitations to speak or chair events. I promised myself and the scientific community that I will focus my speaking activities on research, teaching and promoting the benefits of a science education. When invited, I always try to go to lectures and seminars at high schools, elementary schools, and even to meet politicians. I also get invitations from businesses, church sermons but decline them. It is difficult to manage these commitments along with running a research group and lecturing at university.
How big is your group? Do you still spend time in the laboratory?
We have about 35 people in the group. This includes post-docs, PhD students, master’s degree students, undergraduates and visiting students from other countries. I don’t spend time in the laboratory anymore, and my students prefer it that way! They like to work independently, and come to me for discussing science and their drafts for scientific papers. Much of my time goes in writing applications for research grants, to bring in sufficient money for the group.
What drives or motivates you? How do you deal with failure, and stay motivated?
Research often means walking in the dark. When I see my PhD students struggling at a particular point, I tell them to take a step back and try something else. Uncertainty, failure and disappointment is a part of every researcher’s life. To give you a recent example, we discovered something in the field of lithium chemistry three years ago. That was a problem we had worked on for twenty years! We tried and failed so many times. Then we took a step back and re-tried after a few years. The answer was so simple, yet it eluded us for so long! We must derive enthusiasm from the incremental progress we make. This is essential for a researcher to remain motivated because a big breakthrough in science is a rare occurrence.
What is your advice to new lecturers and young researchers?
I tell my students to “always walk on two feet.” Have one foot in the really challenging areas of research. You might work on such very risky project for years before you make progress. At the same time, have another foot on firmer ground. This is a ‘safer’ area of research where you have a greater conviction that your ideas might work and it keeps one’s research career progressing. Walking on two feet is always easier. That way you can work on incredibly challenging scientific questions without getting frustrated.
More information on Professor Feringa and his research group can be found here.