Special lecture by Dr. Benjamin List and launch of The List Platform

University News | November 02, 2023

Dr. Benjamin List giving a special lecture. (Photo: Yuka Saito)

On October 11th, 2023, the 9th Hokkaido University Cross-Departmental Symposium was held, with a special lecture by Dr. Benjamin List, who won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry 2021. Dr. Benjamin List was appointed as a Principal Investigator of the Institute for the Chemical Reaction Design and Discovery (WPI-ICReDD) at Hokkaido University in 2018 and has been a Specially Appointed Professor since 2020; he was awarded the title of Hokkaido University Professor in 2022. Dr. List, who is also a director of the Max Planck Institute for Coal Research in Germany, shared the 2021 Nobel Prize in Chemistry with Dr. David W.C. MacMillan (Princeton University, USA) for “the development of asymmetric organocatalysis.”

Around 200 people attended the event. (Photo: Yuka Saito)

The special lecture was held as a hybrid meeting at Medical School Alumni Hall Frate, with around 200 students and faculty members from the university and beyond in attendance at the venue and around 500 people attending online. Dr. List delivered a special lecture in which he explained his fascination with catalytic research, which holds the key to various chemical reactions and is important for modern society.

“Actually, from 1909 until 2010 with Suzuki-Sensei (Dr. Akira Suzuki), there were 17 Nobel prizes given to chemical catalysis over this century, recognizing research on metals as the fundamental catalytic principles,” said Dr. List. He proceeded to explain that almost all of catalysis was based on metals and was, therefore expensive with high environmental impacts. “That was sort of the state of the art in the 1990s, when I was a graduate student,” he said, “I thought that’s the rule.” But he tried not to be bound by the rule, which led him to the development of inexpensive and environmentally friendly organocatalysis. Now he continues his research aspiring to develop universal catalysis that can be used for any type of reaction.

Dr. List (left) answers questions with Kiyohiro Houkin, President of Hokkaido University (right) as the moderator. (Photo: Yuka Saito)

At the Q&A session that followed, when asked for a message to young researchers, Dr. List said “There is an element of work hard. But it doesn’t feel like hard work because it’s driven by enthusiasm. If you follow your enthusiasm, you live a happy life. That’s my one key advice.” When asked about the research environment in Japan and Germany, Dr. List pointed out that, in many countries, the governments tend to influence research in a way that it requires return on investment in the short term, but they should invest in fundamental research with a long-term perspective.

Hokkaido University President Kiyohiro Houkin, who moderated the session, asked him how he sees the future of ICReDD as a PI at the institute. He drew laughter from the audience by saying, “My ultimate plan here at ICReDD is to make myself useless. If computational chemistry and machine learning programs could design new catalysts and drug molecules, and robots and machines could replace me, I can retire and enjoy my life.”

Dr. List, President Houkin, organizers, participants. (Photo: Yuka Saito)

At ICReDD, The List Sustainable Digital Transformation (DX) Catalyst Collaboration Research Platform (List Platform) was launched in April 2023, headed by Dr. List. The List Platform will dramatically advance the development of next-generation organocatalysts that contribute to reducing environmental impact and achieving the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals. It aims to achieve these goals by integrating DX technologies such as computational science, robotics, machine learning, and artificial intelligence. The kick-off symposium for the List Platform was held at ICReDD on October 5th.

Written by Yuka Saito