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When the Nobel Prize Committee calls

Jessie Wingard
October 10, 2016

Dutch scientist Ben Feringa was one of three scientists awarded the latest Nobel Prize for Chemistry. In an exclusive interview with DW, he explains how it feels to get that phone call and what it means for his research.

Niederlande Chemie Nobelpreis Ben Feringa
Image: picture alliance/University of Groningen/J. Van Kooten

DW: Firstly, congratulations on your Nobel Prize in Chemistry for your work on the development of molecular machines!

Ben Feringa: Thank you very much, I am greatly honored.

You have been asked this question probably a thousand times since the announcement on Wednesday: How does it feel, when the Nobel Prize committee calls?

I did not know what to say. I was silent for a moment, and then I said to the president of the Nobel Committee, that I was in a bit of a shock and also that I was very emotional, because it came as such a surprise.  You dream sometimes of getting this highest award, when you are a scientist, but of course you don't really imagine it happening. I can still hardly believe it.

The day you won you mentioned that you dreamt about it before, but surely it was a far off dream, wasn't it?

As a scientist you can dream about these things, but we dream of a lot of things: inventions, discoveries, etc. But the reality of fundamental science is extremely hard work and you can have many ideas, but lots of them fail. It is also a life of ups and downs. But once you make a discovery, it is fantastic. And then, when you get such an award for what you did in the past 30 years and the discoveries you made - I have no words for it.

This is also great of course for all the students, the PhDs, the researchers and all the people that helped to make this possible in our institute and the cooperation we have around the world, because with this kind of research in Nano science, you cannot do everything on your own. Let me emphasize, I find it a great privilege to work in the academic world, to work at the frontier of science and to work with the best young talented people of our community.

Now that you won the Nobel Prize, is there some element of fear and trepidation?

The biggest fear I have at the moment: How can I say "no" to things? I have to select of course. But we are still looking forward to the future, I have a very enthusiastic and large research team and we have several projects going on, also with the molecular motors and the molecular machines. We are at this moment particularly looking at smart materials and smart drugs, for example for tumor treatment or antibiotics. I also see it as a great challenge to be an advocate for science, because we need to invest in science - in fundamental science in particular - to make the breakthroughs for our technology of tomorrow.

Niederlande Chemie Nobelpreis Ben Feringa
Feringa said it feels as though he's just stepped off a rollercoasterImage: Getty Images/AFP/S. Veenstra

Energy is a real problem: How are we going to capture energy and how to use electricity for instance to make the fuels of the future? There will be plenty of electricity, but how are we going to convert it into chemical fuels to propel our airplanes for instance?

Not only are you an advocate for science, you are also considered a pioneer in your field. Was chemistry always a passion of yours?

When I was in high school I was what we typically call a natural science kid: I liked mathematics, physics and chemistry a lot, better than languages. What really made me enthusiastic about chemistry is that you can really make things. I am a synthetic chemist; we build new molecules and new materials. They are new catalysts for the industry, or in this case molecular motors for the nanotechnology of the future. The fact that you can make things that never existed before, that we can take these beautiful building blocks of Mother Nature - the molecules - and reshuffle them and make new things, it is like feeling like an artist. You create something that never existed before. That is what I like a lot in what we are doing.

Many people have compared your research and your work with Lego, the little toy building blocks. They say you are building with the tiniest of Lego pieces, how do you see that?

I am not playing with Lego itself, but the Lego are the molecular components that we use to build all these beautiful molecules and materials and let's say the new drugs of the future. Yes indeed, this is how it feels. I feel often like a small boy playing with the Lego, but on a Nano scale.

Niederlande Chemie Nobelpreis Ben Feringa
Molecular machines could one day be used to treat tumors and solve energy problemsImage: Getty Images/AFP/S. Veenstra

When can we expect to see the practical outcomes of your research and what benefits will this have for society?

This is always a tough question when you work on such fundamental research. I compare this often to the Wright Brothers, the people that flew for the first time over a hundred years ago with a very primitive airplane for a few meters. Nobody at that time would have expected that a hundred years later we would have an Airbus or a Boeing 747 carrying 400 people across the ocean.

We as chemists are extremely good in making all kinds of materials that we use in daily life, from the fuel in our cars to the materials in our house to the drugs that we take in the hospital. But the simple fact that we can have now dynamic functions, that we have motors, that we can power things, will make a whole new era of chemical products possible - small devices particular in the medical field. Think about tiny robots that you can inject in your veins and then they search for tumor cells or do repairs or micro-surgery.

The Nobel Prize has put you in the spotlight; do you think that is going to help your research?

I hope it will stimulate lots of young people to dream further than I can do at this moment and think about how they can translate this kind of fundamental technology and discoveries into new inventions, new discoveries - to make the breakthroughs that I mentioned before: How we are going to store energy in the future? How are we going to make materials that can heal themselves? Think of your car - if you had a scratch in your car and it could heal itself. This is all possible in the future, but it needs enormous research. I hope it is a stimulus for the community and especially the younger stars we train at this moment at our universities to develop these products for the future.

Making nano cars was fun for Feringa, but it's also an important stepImage: picture-alliance/dpa/Universität Gröningen/R. Wind/M. Roelfs

What does winning such a price mean to you personally?

It is like winning a gold medal at the Olympics. It is really absolutely flabbergasting. It is like being on a rollercoaster. I am just stepping out of this rollercoaster and getting back on the ground again, but it is absolutely great. This is a trajectory of 30 years of my life and this has also gone through difficult periods. When you have ideas, sometimes it simply does not work and you are at a dead end and you have to find new ways. You have to constantly find money to keep your programs running, because we are experimental scientists: We run a big laboratory and that needs a lot of money. But it is also emotional and you have to admit that through 30 years of research there were all these highlights, all these difficult moments, there is a lot of emotion associated with this. But of course I feel this passion for science and it encouraged me to go on this way.

You talked a lot about young scientists, particular your research team that you are working with in the Netherlands. What would you say to the next generation of scientists out there?

I would say we have just scratched the surface of our field of science - chemical science has endless possibilities. I would say to the young generation: Be a bit daring, go beyond the frontiers, look for original solutions and work on these problems - or instance on energy, food and new materials that we need so desperately to have for the welfare of our society. It all starts with fundamental discoveries, so don't be afraid and try to find out how you can apply this knowledge and make real breakthroughs. Then, there will be new applications and we will all benefit from it. 

And, in particular - enjoy the beauty of the chemical world, the molecular world and the beauty of science, because it is a lot of fun! We have a lot of fun as I said, it is a playground. We are like kids that play, but it also very serious because we try to make solutions for very serious problems like how we are going to treat cancer in the future.

We are currently working on smart antibiotics - antibiotics that you can switch on and off and don't have all the problems with resistance. They should only work on the spot that is affected. Afterwards, the antibiotic is simply switched off and doesn't do any harm. So, there are lots of nice challenges that I would encourage young students and young scientists to get into.

Ben Feringa specializes in molecular nanotechnology and is a professor at the University of Groningen. He received the 2016 Nobel Prize in Chemistry, together with Sir J. Fraser Stoddart and Jean-Pierre Sauvage, "for the design and synthesis of molecular machines."