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Editorial: During C&EN’s Talented 12 symposium, Ben Feringa spoke about his journey through science and his most remarkable moments

by Bibiana Campos Seijo
October 1, 2022 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 100, Issue 35


During C&EN’s virtual Talented 12 symposium Sept. 19–21, we heard from two inspiring keynote speakers. My Sept. 26 editorial was dedicated to the first of those two speakers: Stanford University’s Zhenan Bao. I’d like to dedicate this editorial to the second speaker: Ben Feringa from the University of Groningen.

As a Nobel laureate, Feringa is a well-known face to most chemists around the world. He received the chemistry prize in 2016, sharing the award with Jean-Pierre Sauvage and Sir J. Fraser Stoddart “for the design and synthesis of molecular machines.”

I’ve seen Feringa deliver talks and lectures multiple times, and his energy is contagious. Just like Bao, during the Talented 12 keynote he talked about his journey in the chemical sciences, shared remarkable moments, and illustrated some of the science that he is passionate about.

One of the first things Feringa conveyed during his talk was the joy of discovery. As a small boy growing up on a farm in the northern part of the Netherlands, he spent a lot of time exploring the outdoors and becoming fascinated by the discoveries he made in his own backyard. Later, as a university student, he continued making discoveries. He remembered fondly the feeling after completing the synthesis of a novel compound. When he realized that “nobody else in the world has made this molecule,” he felt very proud, “like when you write your first piece of music, your first poem, or play your first soccer match,” he said.

When it comes to scientific exploration, Feringa said that young scientists often try to go “beyond our horizon and are fascinated by the rainbow,” or the thrill of the scientific quest. But he emphasized that trying to unravel scientific mysteries offers its own rewards, even if scientists never uncover an answer. “I got lost often and ended up in some of the most beautiful spots.”

Feringa also talked about the teachers from his youth and explained that teachers need to understand that “every student has a talent.” They should work to make students enthusiastic about their particular field of science and “open windows” for them—inspire them to learn about the why. “Opening windows is about stimulating curiosity,” he said. “Chemistry has a link to the real world, and there are many examples one can share of how our science is important.”

Winning the Nobel Prize was one of the most significant moments in Feringa’s career. He didn’t expect to win it, so he did not have specific advice for aspiring future candidates. He equated receiving the Nobel with winning a gold medal at the Olympics. “You work hard, you train a lot, and if you are lucky, you may win a medal.”

Feringa showed his humorous side by referring to the 2010 episode of The Simpsons in which his name is one of four in the chemistry category of the betting pool that some of the series’ young characters were running. William E. Moerner, another name on the sweeps card, went on to win the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 2014 for his work on fluorescence microscopy.

When it comes to popular culture, Feringa was surprised to discover—and very proud to share with the audience—a schematic of a molecular motor that had been drawn over graffiti decorating a wall in the streets of Berlin.

During his closing remarks, Feringa appealed to early-career researchers and encouraged them to “choose an important problem, where you can make an impact.” And he added, “Follow your dreams; be confident; discover your energy.”

Feringa certainly has lots of energy, and his journey of discovery has taken him to some beautiful spots in the sciences. He seems to still be fascinated by the journey beyond the rainbow, by the thrill of the scientific quest.

Views expressed on this page are those of the author and not necessarily those of ACS.


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