Eye-witness of Nobel Prize in Chemistry Award Ceremony

University of Helsinki

On October 6, the 2021 Nobel Prize in Chemistry was announced. German scientist Benjamin Liszt and American scientist David Macmillan were awarded “for the development of asymmetric organocatalysis”. Chemistry PhD student Ming Guo from the University of Helsinki was on Site.

PhD student Ming Guo as a reporter in The Nobel Prize Award Ceremony.

After the announcement of this year Chemistry Nobel Prize, PhD student Ming Guo from the University of Helsinki, from Prof. Timo Repo’s group, interviewed one member of the Nobel Chemistry Committee ZOU Xiaodong. Xiaodong Zou is a full professor and chair of the Inorganic and Structural Chemistry Unit and deputy head of the Department of Materials and Environmental Chemistry, Stockholm University.

Ming:

Hello Xiaodong. I am very pleased to interview you. The Nobel Prize in Chemistry was announced just now and with that there is a wave of hot reviews online. The Nobel Prizes announced this year range in categories from medicine to physics to chemistry. Netizens find it very interesting. We can think of tactile sensing in neuroscience, physical interpretation of environment and climate and today’s chemistry winner, asymmetric organocatalysis. It is a coherent, great discovery. The great discoveries of the two award-winning scientists today, what good news will they bring to us in real life?

Xiaodong:

Thank you. Everyone knows that chemical catalysis is very important in human life. In fact, 35% of the world’s total GDP involves chemical. 2021 Nobel Prize in Chemistry was awarded to asymmetric organocatalysis, that is, to use small organic molecules to catalyze the synthesis of organic molecules. Asymmetric catalysis used to have two branches, organometallic catalysis (metals) and biocatalysis (enzymes), which were awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 2001 and 2018, respectively. This year, the two Nobel Prize winners discovered that small organic molecules have the same or even more effective catalytic functions as metals and enzymes, thus opening up the third branch in the field of catalysis. Many examples in real life, such as plastics, medicines and solar cells, are constructed from various organic molecules. These substances are synthesized via chemical catalysis.

Ming:

I didn’t expect the contribution of material catalysis to be so great, how can we explain it further?

Xiaodong:

This year’s Nobel Prize in Chemistry was awarded to small molecule asymmetric organocatalysis, which brought up a new concept. Its discovery added a new catalytic tool to the toolbox of the “catalysis family”. Compared with metals and enzymes, small molecules are easy to synthesize and do not require metal elements, which are not only low in cost, but also environmentally friendly. It can be said that asymmetry organic catalysts will bring milestones in our lives. Especially in the pharmaceutical industry, the synthesis of many drug molecules requires many steps and many reactions to achieve, and some can only be extracted from natural products, because the yield is limited, so it is very expensive. If there are better chemical synthesis methods to increase the product yields, drugs will be cheaper and easier to meet human needs in the future. For example, many intractable diseases, AIDS, and new coronary diseases now require a lot of drugs.

Ming:

How can your research inspire the young generation of researchers?

Xiaodong:

I want to use this year’s Nobel Prize in Chemistry as an example. You may have noticed that the two Nobel laureates are relatively young. Their prize-winning work was done only 3-4 years after their PhD. This is because they changed the research directions and didn’t follow the main research streams. Instead, they developed a new research field, asymmetric organocatalysis. Young scientists should sometimes “think out of the box”, and raise more critical questions: ”Is this the best approach or solution?” ”Can we do it differently?”

I have been supervising a lot of students. My main focus is to create a good research environment, make them interested in research, motivate them to think and find their own ideas, and encourage them to explore their own ideas. I want to give them inspiration.

Ming:

Where do you get your research inspiration (i.e. arts/music/networking)?

Xiaodong:

I get inspiration from discussions with colleagues and students. I also get my inspiration from challenging scientific problems. What are the problems that are both important and challenging? Do I have unique competences to tackle the problems? Why haven’t other people done it before? Do I have new ideas to tackle the problems? If I am convinced, I will devote myself and focus on the problems over many years.

Ming:

I sometimes feel frustrated about my research. For example, the synthesized catalyst may not perform well. Do you have any solutions regarding it?

Xiaodong:

I have supervised many students through the years, and all students have had frustrations during their studies. This is normal. In fact, frustration is not always a bad thing, it is part of the training as a scientist. In research, most of the experiments will fail. Do you want to give up or continue? Being a scientist, you should not easily give up and instead try to learn something from your failures. It is important to learn how to find new ideas and new solutions despite the frustration. As an old saying: “Failure is the mother of success”.

Ming:

How did the environment, your surrounding or the society or laboratory conditions influenced the progress of your work or your work in general?

Xiaodong:

A good working environment is extremely important. My main focus is to create an open and stimulating research environment for scientists, make sure they can focus on their research, and encourage them to explore new things, and test own hypotheses. During my career, I have been benefited from such an environment. It is extremely important to be able to identify challenging scientific questions and find approaches and methods to tackle them. It is also important to have good research facilities.

Ming:

Thank you so much for your time.

Cata­lysis and Green chemistry at University of Helsinki

Catalysis is very central concept in modern chemistry and in very center of research activities in the Department of Chemistry at University of Helsinki.

The research activities include heterogeneous catalysis involving light activated plasmonic catalysis and carbocatalysis as well as homogeneous catalysis with and without metal. Research topics like catalytic activation of carbon dioxide are aimed to provide sustainable solutions for modern society.

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