University News | October 22, 2021
This is a condensed, edited transcript of the video conference with Nobel Laureate Dr. Benjamin List, held at ICReDD, Hokkaido University on October 7, 2021, a day after the winners of the Nobel Prize in Chemistry were announced.
This is not a prize for just one person. It’s impossible to carry such an honor. I would be happy to share this honor with all of you at ICReDD, my great friends.
How do you feel about receiving the Nobel Prize?
It’s like a dream come true. It’s almost unreal in a way. I was in Amsterdam with my wife [on the day of the announcement]. In the back of my mind, I knew that today the prize would be given. But I did not expect this at all. Certainly not at my “relatively” young age.
Sometime around 11.00, the phone rang in my pocket. On the phone, it said a phone number I didn’t know but underneath it said “Sweden”. I went outside and it was the call, it was the call and that was such an incredible moment and it was just incredible.
What is the key to this important achievement in Chemistry?
Of course, the component of luck is always involved, but also, sort of serendipity. From my PhD supervisor, Johann Mulzer, I knew about the old proline work in the 70s, that was somehow forgotten. And then, at Scripps Institute, when I looked at the crystal structure of the enzymes I was working with, I saw there’s an amino group and there’s an acid, and then — I know it’s really naïve, but — amino acid came to mind. Everything fell into place.
But I felt a little bit silly and maybe naïve, because everybody knew that this is a stupid idea. Because at the time, the thinking was that small molecules could not be catalysts. So, I did this experiment and I kept it a secret.
I think we should cherish this feeling of insecurity; it’s really special. We should not feel too confident about our work.
What made you want to participate in ICReDD?
First of all, it’s the general inspiration of the Japanese-style chemistry, like this radical innovativeness about it, this courage to try new things. Of course, Maeda-sensei’s approach to computational chemistry, to theoretical chemistry, is unique. I think we are at the phase where the potential of computational chemistry can be realized, for the first time in the history of chemistry. I’m very curious and I want to be part of this.
Has your impression of research in Japan changed after joining ICReDD?
I love this interdisciplinarity and your enthusiasm about opening up to other countries, other people, other influences. I love this mixing up of computation, scientific experiments and artificial intelligence.
What kind of Chemistry research do you want to conduct in the future?
I’m waiting for the day that we sit down and design chemical reactions from scratch. Maybe one day we’ll be able to design enantio-selective catalysts. Right now, just predicting the right enantiomer would be an incredible challenge.
Ultimately, maybe this work might make chemists superficial, in a certain way. Maybe we won’t need this style of chemistry that we do, at some point. I don’t think this is happening very soon, though. I am not worried about that time, because then we can do other great things. There are so many things we can do and be excited about.
Do you have a message to young researchers?
It’s a simple message, it’s not a revolutionary one, but it’s an important one: Follow your enthusiasm, do what you really love to do, and don’t anticipate the outcome. Don’t get attached to the outcome.
Nobel Prize official announcement:
Congratulatory messages from Hokkaido University members:
Hokkaido University congratulates Dr. Benjamin List for winning Nobel Prize in Chemistry