Bernard L. Feringa visited Stockholm university, arranged by PhD students.
Bernard L. Feringa visited Stockholm university, arranged by PhD students. Foto: Anna-Karin Landin

 

­Bernard L. Feringa, Professor at Rijksuniversiteit Groningen in the Netherlands was recently awarded the 2016 Nobel Prize in Chemistry, together with Jean-Pierre Sauvage and Sir J. Fraser, for their design and production of molecular machines. On 14 December he visited Stockholm University to hold a lecture for PhD students and other members of staff at the Department of Biochemistry and Biophysics and the Department of Organic Chemistry.

After the lecture, a panel and the audience had the opportunity to ask questions. The conversation was about both about details in his research, and the feeling when the Nobel Foundation suddenly called him.

Left speachless

“I was discussing with my students about how to proceed in our research”, Bernard Feringa said. “The phone rang and my first thought was ‘who is disturbing us’. When I realized Stockholm was calling, I sent the students out and was left speechless. ‘Are you still there’ they asked and I said ‘yes, but I am in shock’. I didn’t know what to say, this was one of the few times I couldn’t speak. They said the would call back in 15 minutes, so I brought my students back in, continued the discussion for 10 minutes and took a decision about the research. Then I sat there alone in my room, waiting to be interviewed live on Swedish TV. 30 years of my life passed by, from where I started out as you guys, as a PhD student.”

The same afternoon he was supposed to go to a ceremony for his daughters’ exam. Thanks to that he had put a jacket on, and his wife told him he looked nice on TV. He missed the ceremony though, but he plans to be there when she’ll finish her master.

"They kept me out of the army"

One of the questions from the panel was why he went back to academy from the industry, and Feringa starts by sharing why he ended up in the industry in the first place. At that time military service was mandatory, and with the help from his workplace Shell he managed to stay away.

“I don’t know how they did it, but they kept me out of the army. I learned a lot and the time at Shell was an important part of my life. However, after 6,5 years I realized my interest was in fundamental science and I had to go back. Simply because I wanted to work on my own research, build up my own research group, and teach.”

Molecular drones?

One of the PhD students in the audience asked a question if the molecular machines could work in the air.           

”Fantastic question, like a drone. It would have to go to gas phase and my molecules are pretty heavy. I will take this to my group. What’s your name? I will let you know Dan.”

To finish, Bernard Feringa had a challenge for the PhD students:

“Let me give you one great challenge. Food will be even more important in the near future, and the use of fertilizer is really important to make it grow. How do we make fertilizer without the energy consuming process and the technique that is 100 years old? Anybody here who has an idea, please please call me.”

Ceremony like a fairy tale

What has been the highlight of the Nobel Week in Stockholm?

“There were several highlights, like the moment when I got the medal from your King. And the whole ceremony was like a fairy tale. Another highlight is when I was in the Nobel Foundation building, to give a signature in the book where all these famous scientists have signed. I looked in the book and saw the signatures from those that were like gods to me when I was younger. I put my name there, in the same book, and it was very emotional.”

The visit was arranged by PhD students at the Department of Biochemistry and Biophysics and the Department of Organic Chemistry. In the photo from left to right: Marvin Luebcke, Federica Poiana, Markus Björck, Hannah Dawitz, Angela van der Werf, Bernard Feringa, Tamás Görbe, Riccardo Diamanti and Kilian Colas.
The visit was arranged by PhD students at the Department of Biochemistry and Biophysics and the Department of Organic Chemistry. In the photo from left to right: Marvin Luebcke, Federica Poiana, Markus Björck, Hannah Dawitz, Angela van der Werf, Bernard Feringa, Tamás Görbe, Riccardo Diamanti and Kilian Colas.