Illustrations by Ellen Offringa

Miniature innovations with monumental implications An interview with Professor Ben L. Feringa
Authors / Piotr G.S. Schulkes, Jennifer Hong & Rozanne M. Versendaal
Edited by / Piotr G.S. Schulkes

In 1999, Ben Feringa, together with several other scientists, published an article on unidirectional molecular motors in Nature. On Saturday 10th December 2016, he became the fourth Dutchman[Textbox 1] to receive the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for ‘the design and synthesis of molecular machines’.(1) Feringa is one of the most creative and prolific chemists alive, who has so many awards he is forced to put some on the floor, lest they take the shelf space of his beloved chemistry books. Despite his successes, he remains a down-to-earth person who revels in doing research and supervising students. Feringa‘s biggest strength is his love for his field, with which he turns even the most scientifically illiterate interviewer into a potential chemist through his infectious enthusiasm and barrages of knowledge and insight.

 

Honours Review sat down with the man who has been described as ‘a bit of an Einstein’(2) by his daughters, in order to pick his brain on topics ranging from his horses to his view on the future of science, and several things in between.

 

Standing on the shoulders of giants

 

When asked about the importance of history in science, Ben Feringa referred to a proverb with origins in the  12th century, and immortalised by Isaac Newton in 1676: ‘Scientists stand on the shoulders of the giants before them’. After receiving the Nobel Prize in Chemistry, Feringa finds himself in the company of these giants; people such as Marie Curie, who initiated the search on radioactivity; and Linus Pauling, one of the most influential chemists of the modern era. While Feringa‘s research is at the razor’s edge of science, he is fully aware of the benefits of letting oneself be inspired by one‘s predecessors. ‘If you stand on their shoulders, you can look further. That is what I did with my professor, Hans Wijnberg. He was a very forward-thinking man, and wanted to do things which nobody else had done, and I have benefited a lot from that.‘ He continues by mentioning the scientists who have had the most influence on him. ‘One of my biggest heroes is definitely professor Cram from UCLA [University of California, Los Angeles]’, a Nobel laureate who pioneered the potential of building molecules, ‘and Woodward, a Harvard professor who was the world‘s top synthetic chemist‘, another Nobel laureate. Feringa‘s greatest hero, however, the one he regards as his ‘absolute hero, above all those others’ is fellow Dutchman Jacobus van ‘t Hoff, who was the first ever recipient of the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for discovering the tetrahedral model of carbon in 1901.   ‘He discovered that molecules have a three-dimensional structure and that you have mirror images of molecules, and mirror images is what my research has been about the last thirty years.’ Feringa pauses, smiles, and quips, ‘He made this discovery when he was twenty-three years old, so hurry.’

 

Foundations of the future

 

In today‘s society, speed is king. We have the knowledge of all of mankind in our pockets, and we have been conditioned to expect research to produce quick results and clear applications. Popular perception of the sciences is no different, a development Feringa considers to be slightly worrying. ‘There is a tendency to put more emphasis on what is important for today‘s society and its direct, real-world applications, where we spend research money to achieve short term results.’ He argues that there should be a balance, and underlines the role of universities in achieving this. ‘It is an important duty for universities to advance the sciences, and that means you need to emphasize the fundamentals of science. If we don‘t confront students with the frontiers of current knowledge, we, as a university, are not doing a good job. If there is not enough room for fundamental research, we are not moving forward, because a good fundamental basis is required to make new discoveries.’ As a result of his working experience for Shell prior to returning to the University of Groningen, Feringa can base his statements on both practical and theoretical perspectives, and understands the importance of balancing fundamental and applied research. ‘In the science department, we always keep in mind that there are big industries who need chemistry-based science. However, for my research, while my peers and I can look at opportunities for application, it is not our primary concern.  We always keep an eye on the real world, asking ‘what can we do with it?’, and while I consider valorisation[Textbox 2] of research important, I do not think it should be the dominant factor at universities.’ Highlighting the unpredictability of scientific development and the  difficulty of estimating the value of new discoveries, he reminds us of the history of the now-ubiquitous smartphones. ‘The transistors were developed in the forties, and the liquid crystal display materials of the screen were made in the fifties by chemists. It took fifty years before we had developed the technology to such an extent that we could build smartphones.Today, we almost cannot imagine life without them, they have changed the world. You cannot predict how important an invention will be, I cannot predict how the fact that we can control dynamics on a molecular scale will affect our future.’ Feringa also has concerns about the potential lack of sufficient funds to keep the fundamental basis of university research afloat. ‘I think we should invest more in fundamental research with the perspective of innovation over 20 to 30 years, and not only look at how it might fit into the world of today, or our perceived world of tomorrow.’

 

‘If you want to write a book, write a book’

 

People regularly give each other advice, some of it good, some of it bad. In an academic career spanning almost 40 years and numerous international awards, Feringa has also dispensed his fair share of wisdom to more than a hundred PhD students. Of course, he has also been the recipient of a great deal of advice, good and bad. ‘The most useless advice actually came from a professor, who said “that‘s too difficult for you”. When you are a young student, you want to be challenged. I wanted to work on many different things, but the advice was to stay focused and only pick one path to follow’. He leans back for a second,  grins, and continues, ‘maybe it was very good advice, because after he said that I thought “damn it, I will do it”. I wanted to prove the naysayers wrong.’ Since then, Feringa has published important papers on a wide variety of subjects, ranging from catalysis to nanotechnology. Echoing the advice given to him by his own PhD supervisor, Hans Wijnberg, Feringa puts on his best American accent and drawls ‘If you want to write a book, write a book, you can listen to everybody and listen carefully. You can learn a lot from your seniors, you can learn from me, but in the end, you have to go your own way, follow your dreams, and make your own decisions. Be daring.’ However, brains and advice can only get you so far. For Feringa, a scientist needs to perseve, while also having open mind. ‘I believe in serendipity, but you have to be able to see when something is special. Of course, 99 times out of 100 it is nothing, but now and then you find something beautiful by accident and you need to recognise it for what it is.’  At this point, he admits that the molecular motor was the result of exactly this kind of event. ‘The motor, we found it by accident. We were making molecular switches, and for some reason a certain switch always moved a certain way. We couldn‘t explain what was happening, but it was clear it was not going backwards, only forwards, so then we had the first 180 degrees of a rotary motor.’

 

The Nobel Prize and the Elfstedenkruis

The discovery of a unidirectional rotary molecular motor driven by light was first published by Feringa and his co-workers in 1999, and in 2016 he received the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for his work on this concept. Unsurprisingly, getting the Nobel Prize was his biggest scientific achievement. ‘To get the Nobel Prize is a dream come true for any scientist, it‘s the best you can get. One of the most memorable moments in my life was signing the book with the names of the previous Nobel laureates, and seeing the names of all my heroes in front of me.’ Similarly, finding the molecular rotary motor was ‘of course an amazing discovery’, although he is quick to mention the scientific successes the Feringa Group has had in other fields, which, while less glamorous than the idea of a molecular motor, have also been highly influential.

 

‘I always work on different lines of research, and while there is a connection between them, they are not closely related. I have several research teams, including a smart materials- and  biological applications-team. In the latter team, for example, we work with drugs which can be switched on and off, with possible uses being selective tumour treatment.’

 

Feringa‘s scientific achievements are world-famous, and have been cited thousands of times, but he has also succeeded at being quintessentially Dutch. De Elfstedentocht (Eleven City Tour) is a near-mythical Dutch event with thousands of participants who skate 200 kilometres in less than 24 hours, but happens irregularly due to the generally warm Dutch winters.

 

In 1997, Feringa was one of the fifteen thousand participants. ‘I was one of the latest starters, beginning at quarter past nine in the morning, but I managed to finish safely within the deadline, exactly 12 hours later, at quarter past nine in the evening. Unfortunately, I spent almost half that time skating in the dark, but despite the wind and the freezing temperatures, I enjoyed it a lot and got the Elfestendenkruis’, referring to the medal awarded when completing the Tour. In addition to skating, Feringa is also an avid biker. ‘Every morning I bike to the lab, which is a 28 kilometre return trip. Snow, ice, I don‘t care. That‘s my exercise.’ This, combined with his love for gardening and his ownership of a horse named Janneke, the surviving member of a pair of horses called Jip and Janneke,[Textbox 3] caused an interviewer to comment on Feringa‘s archetypal Dutchness. ‘Yeah, I am a typical Dutchman. I love gardening, biking and skating, but I don‘t have enough time to do everything, that is the problem’.

 

From 1493 to 1988

Bookshelves tend to say something about the person who owns them. Bono had Lord of the Flies and The Picture of Dorian Grey while John Lennon had books by Tolstoy and Alice in Wonderland. When prompted with this question, Feringa looks around the room. ‘As you can see, there are a lot of chemistry books here’. With wall-to-wall shelves overflowing with papers and books, that is a severe understatement. ‘I am reading all day to keep up with the new literature within my field, but I enjoy reading, especially historical style books.’ First to be mentioned were Buddenbrooks, by Thomas Mann, a novel narrating a German merchant‘s family‘s fall from grace, and Barbara Tuchman, a non-fiction author most famous for her works relating to the First and Second World Wars.

 

‘At the moment, I’m reading 1493 by Charles Mann, which is fantastic, every student should read it. It describes how the world changed after Columbus’ voyage to the New World, and gives context to why the world looks like it does today.’ Despite his love for history, Feringa‘s inaugural lecture quoted a very different sort of book. ‘I think one of my favourite books is the Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy. I think it‘s take on order and chaos is beautiful, and I opened my inaugural lecture with a quote from it in 1988.’ Translated from Dutch, the opening line is: ‘order and chaos, opposed as each other‘s mirror images, but yet so intimately intertwined’.

 

Science is for everyone

‘I value the great diversity of disciplines in the academic world. You have everything from history and psychology to astronomy and chemistry.’ For Feringa, this diversity should also extend to the practitioners within those fields. ‘Saying that there is a difference between males and females in academia is absolute nonsense. Several of the most accomplished, distinguished scientists in chemistry are women.’ Potentially hinting to Marie Curie, the first person ever to get two Nobel Prizes and the only person to win them in two different sciences. ‘Women can be brilliant and great scientists. I have several women in my group, and they do amazingly well, be it in academia or in industry. There is no difference between the genders.’

 

When asked about the gender differences in certain programmes, he stated ‘I think that will change, but of course, it is a process. Look at the medical field, for many years it was dominated by men and now 60% of the medical faculty is female. We should always encourage women to look at the sciences, the diversity is important for our culture and for our education. The least we can do is to help young women and young families to combine their studying and running a family.’ To emphasize the point, Feringa said ‘I would strongly discourage the idea that there are fields which men or women cannot do, it is preposterous.’

 

Science is a global language

 

This fear of uninformed opinions was also present in Feringa’s view on recent political developments across the pond. ‘I’m worried by the attitude people have towards science. The idea that you sometimes hear politicians say that science is an opinion is shocking, frankly. Science and education is based on facts and insights. One should always be critical of data, but that does not mean it is something one can disregard. I do not want to mention Trump exclusively, as there are many advocates of this kind of thinking, but this is where universities should stand up and challenge these attitudes.’ He emphasized that this thinking is not only dangerous for academics, but for society as a whole. While walls might be all the rage for some people, Feringa considers them anathema to the academic world. ‘We have a global community. In my research group, there are 14 nationalities, and people everywhere, be it Asia or Africa or America, speak the language of chemistry, the language of science. If we don‘t bring critical thinking to students, we are undermining the success of future generations.’ Instead of being afraid of the unknown, people should be fascinated by it and should advocate scientific research. ‘We do not know what the world will look like in 20 years, but we know what we want it to look like, and that is what we should strive for.’

'Imagine the unimaginable'

- Ben L. Feringa, Nobel Lecture in Stockholm, December 2016

Textbox 1:

 

1901 /Jacobus Henricus van ‘t Hoff

Stereochemistry, physical chemistry

 

1936 /Petrus Josephus Wilhelmus Debye

Physical chemistry, dipole moment

 

1995 /Paul J. Crutzen

Atmospheric chemistry

 

2016 /Ben L. Feringa

Supramolecular chemistry, molecular machines

 

Textbox 2:

Knowledge valorisation is the endeavour to finding real world applications for scientific

developments.

 

Textbox 3:

Jip and Janneke are the main characters in a series of Dutch children‘s books written in the 1950s by Annie M. G. Schmidt.

References

 

1. The 2016 Nobel Prize in Chemistry - Press Release‘. Nobelprize.org. Nobel Media AB 2014. Web. 11 Mar 2017. http://www.nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/chemistry/laureates/2016/press.html

 

2. ‘Wat Doet Jouw Vader? Mijn Papa Is Nobelprijswinnaar‘. Nos.Nl, 2016, http://nos.nl/op3/artikel/2147632-wat-doet-jouw-vader-mijn-papa-is-nobelprijswinnaar.html.

 

Copyright: Rector Magnificus Prof.dr. Elmer Sterken

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Issue 9 / May 2017 / ISSN 2214-6083

Edition: 500 copies

 

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