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Bernard L. Feringa

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Bernard L. Feringa is pioneer in the field of molecular engines and he strives to inspire his students, stimulate their creativity and help them appreciate the beauty of nature.

When Nobel Laureate in chemistry Dr. Bernard L. (Ben) Feringa’s colleagues at the Netherlands’ University of Groningen heard the news of his award, they erupted in cheers and applause. Later some people presented him with gifts, including a toy Ferrari, a nod to Feringa’s successful creation of a molecular car.

Feringa is one of three chemists—including American Sir. J. Fraser Stoddart and Frenchman Dr. Jean-Pierre Sauvage—honored this year by the Nobel Committee for their work designing and producing molecular “machines.”  The chemists “developed molecules with controllable movements, which can perform a task when energy is added,” according to the Nobel Committee and are part of what Feringa calls “the supramolecular and molecular machines’ community.”

An ambassador for science

Feringa was recognized for being the first person to develop a molecular motor. In 1999, he created a molecular rotor blade that could spin continually in the same direction while under the influence of light and heat.

“Using molecular motors, he has rotated a glass cylinder that is 10,000 times bigger than the motor” according to the Nobel Committee. The molecular car, or nanocar, he created consisted of a molecular chassis held together with four motors that functioned as wheels.

As for his reaction to news of his award, Feringa said,

“It took me by surprise. Initially, I did not know what to say, but my next remark was that I was deeply honored.”  Suddenly he is being recognized by people on the streets and on trains and juggling numerous speaking invitations. “My experience has been that people are proud that a Dutch scientist is a Nobel laureate.”  He also is happy to serve as an ambassador for science.

“I consider it extremely important to inform the public about the value of scientific inquiry,” explained Feringa. “This is more important than ever these days as even in politics, you hear alarming messages such as ‘science is also only an opinion.’ There is a clear task for outreach by scientists these days.”

Smart drugs

Feringa began working on molecular switches and motors about 30 years ago. “The initial molecule that formed a basis for the later switches and motors I designed [was created] exactly 40 years ago while working on my Ph.D. thesis,” he said.
Currently he is the leader of the Ben Feringa Research Group at the Stratingh Institute for Chemistry at the University of Groningen, in the Netherlands, where he has taught since 1988. The group’s research focuses on synthetic and physical organic chemistry, with a goal of using the full potential of synthetic chemistry to “create new structures and functions,” according to the group’s website.

“We are currently heavily involved in designing responsive biosystems, like smart drugs that can be switched on and off by light,” Feringa explained. “Also, we are trying to build on our nanocar by making molecular cars and dragsters that can move on self-assembled ‘molecular roads,’ controlling movement under ambient conditions and demonstrating cargo transport.”

One of the most important aspect of his group’s research is the ability to control dynamic functions on a molecular scale, he added. “This means controlled motion and triggering all kinds of functions,” said Feringa. This could lead to self-healing materials or smart drugs for future precision therapeutics, he added.

Your own molecular world

The creative aspects and practical applications of chemistry attracted him to the discipline, according to Feringa. “The fact that you can ‘design your own molecular world’ was very appealing to me,” he noted.  “There is the beauty of molecules and the fact that you can make molecules and materials that never existed before. On the one hand, you have the creativity and creating power of chemistry and on the other hand, the practicality. Think of the products, from paint to drugs, that chemistry brings. And let’s not forget the fascinating molecular world in living systems.”

Stimulate creativity

A dynamic high-school chemistry teacher and a superior mentor for his doctoral thesis at the University of Groningen, Prof. Hans Wynberg, also inspired him to do experimental work with molecules. Feringa now strives to inspire his own students as well; the world of molecules is wide open.

“I like to make students enthusiastic,” he noted. “To explain to them how things work and why certain knowledge and insights are important to know and why. [To help them appreciate] the beauty of nature and look with surprise and wonder at the world around us. And to discuss with the students challenging questions that help to stimulate their creativity. These are the drivers for me for teaching.”

Photo: Jenny Öhman


FACTS
Bernard L. (Ben) Feringa, Ph.D.


Award: Nobel Prize in Chemistry, for creating the first molecular motor.

Current Position: Leader of the Ben Feringa Research Group at the Stratingh Institute for Chemistry, University of Groningen, Netherlands

Jacobus van’t Hoff Distinguished Professor of Molecular Sciences

Age: 66

Nationality: Dutch

Born: Barger-Compascuum, Netherlands

Education: Ph.D. University of Groningen

Personal: Married, three daughters

Interests: “Chemistry; science is my hobby. But I also enjoy my garden, growing my own vegetables, long distance ice skating, reading, history and of course, spending time with my family.”

Jacobus van’t Hoff Distinguished Professor of Molecular Sciences

Age: 66

Nationality: Dutch

Born: Barger-Compascuum, Netherlands

Education: Ph.D. University of Groningen

Personal: Married, three daughters

Interests: “Chemistry; science is my hobby. But I also enjoy my garden, growing my own vegetables, long distance ice skating, reading, history and of course, spending time with my family.”

 

 

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