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“Please, follow your dreams”

“Please, follow your dreams”

Photographer:Fotograaf: Diana Berdun Mingo

Interview with Dutch Nobel Prize winner

MAASTRICHT. Nobel Prize winner Ben Feringa can still be nervous before an interview, especially in front of young people. “They sometimes ask these bright questions.” Last Tuesday, Brightlands Chemelot Campus organised a College Tour with Feringa, named after a popular TV series in which students ask questions. But why does it take place in the sports hall?

In 2016, Ben Feringa gained overnight fame when he won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry. In 1999, Feringa discovered a molecular motor, which is as small as a molecule and rotates under the influence of light and heat. Since then, he has designed many nano motors, including a nano mill park and a 4-wheel drive car. These motors can transport themselves through the blood stream, for example to deliver drugs inside the human body.

And then again, students asked him ‘bright questions’ such as: Do your cars have steering wheels? Are there traffic jams? “Never thought about that,” he says.

A PhD student wants to know: How do you coach your PhD candidates? “I was privileged to start my career in Hans Wijnberg’s group. Wijnberg was a chemist who worked in the US and came back to Groningen with an American attitude. His slogan - not unlike Trump today - was: Second to none! He said to me, a PhD student: ‘If you want to write a book, write a book.’ As a mentor, I care more about my students. Not only the bright ones, but all my students, also the ones who struggle a lot.”

Feringa stresses the importance of – and now the gym comes into play - a balance in life. “Work hard, but go to the pub too, or do sports.” The nano professor has no time for sports anymore. “I do cycle 14,5 kilometres to work every day, and I sometimes go skiing or ice skating. Talking about skating, I completed the last Eleven Cities Tour, called ‘Elfstedentocht’, and got this Silver Cross. It’s as precious to me as the Nobel Prize.”

Why did he go to Shell, a few years after his PhD? “Believe it or not, because Shell kept me out of the army. I don’t know how they did it, but they managed. After six years, I returned to the university, more interested in discoveries than innovations. And I liked teaching.”

Feringa stayed in Groningen all his life. “I got tremendous offers, from Stanford and Cambridge, but I’m a family man too. My three young daughters were in school, playing hockey with their friends. Not the right time to move to England or America. But I proved that you don’t have to work at Cambridge to win a Nobel Prize.”

His message to students, as he stressed earlier in his morning lecture: Reinvent chemistry! “It has been extremely successful. Just take a look at your smartphone, at all the drugs we use, the smart materials. But new challenges are always there; think about the storage capacity for electric cars or smart drugs. We have to think unconventionally.”

And most importantly, he concludes: “Please, use your talents and follow your dreams!”

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