Inspiring the chemists of the future

  Solvay Prize Ceremony Click to enlarge

This year it has been my pleasure to act as co-secretary of the jury for the biannual Chemistry for the Future Solvay Prize with my colleague Paul Baekelmans. As most of you will know by now, the 2015 prize has been won by Dutch scientist Professor Ben Feringafrom the University of Groningen.

Professor Feringa’s work on unidirectional molecular motors has opened a new field of research which, for example, paves the way for the development of new therapeutic and technological applications. Within the next twenty or thirty years, his research will likely lead to the introduction of nanorobots – microscopic robots which can accurately target specific molecules during therapeutic treatment. It may also enable a new generation of scientists to design artificial muscles or further optimize the storage of information on a molecular scale.

  PrFeringa Click to enlarge

Solvay’s CEO Jean-Pierre Clamadieu notified Ben that he had been selected as the 2015 Solvay laureate. 

As well as recognizing the contribution that his team of talented students had made to his research, Ben spoke of his conviction that synthetic chemistry will bring unimaginable solutions to society in the future. It’s a conviction that I thoroughly agree with.

A nine-month selection process

The scope and applicability of Professor Feringa’s research underlines why the Chemistry for the Future Solvay Prize is so important.It’s all about creativity and innovation, two things that are embedded in the genes of Solvay. Our willingness to innovate is the reason Solvay has grown over the past 150 years, and enables us to deliver new solutions which improve life for people around the world.

In total it takes about nine months for us to select the Solvay laureate. Candidates are initially nominated by members of the Solvay Institute scientific councils as well as scientific academies and organisations from around the world. We have a step-by-step process to whittle this large field of nominations down to a shortlist of candidates.

Ben Feringa was selected as the 2015 Solvay laureate by a jury of eminent scientists including Nobel laureates Jean-Marie Lehnand Gerhard Ertl, and the winner of the 2013 prize, Peter Schultz. Each of them deserves their place on the panel. The President of our jury is the former president of the committee which selects the Nobel Chemistry Prize winner.

Chemistry for the Future Solvay Prize - The jury

Left to right: Dr Patrick Maestro, Prof. Jean-Marie Lehn, Prof. Paul Chaikin,
Prof. Christophe Dobson, Prof. Gerhard Ertl, Prof. Hakan Wennerström, Dr. Paul Baekelmans,
(Missing Prof. Peter G. Schultz).

Every shortlisted candidate is presented to the jury, which then actively debates their suitability. As secretaries, Paul and I don’t get to participate in the discussions and don’t vote, but we do get to observe the debate. We want the best candidate so there are strong, but fair, discussions.

Innovation and excellence are key criteria

The key word that comes up continually during the jury’s deliberations is excellence. The second criteria that the jury considers is the candidate’s contribution to the transformation of science into potential applications. Both are equally important criteria as the reputation of the Chemistry for the Future Solvay Prize largely depends on the quality of the eventual laureate.

Professor Feringa is an eminent laureate who more than fulfils the ambitions of the Chemistry for the Future Solvay Prize. As I prepared his dossier I realized the depth of his skills. In the words of the jury, he is one of the most creative chemists of our time. As such, Professor Feringa has already been recognized by several scientific academies, and has won many other awards for his innovative research.

Solvay will work to develop contacts between Professor Feringa and our worldwide team of researchers. With his inspiration, we hope to open their eyes to brand new areas of science and inspire them to develop new solutions for global issues.

  Oumou and Sean discovering the Chemistry for the Future Solvay Prize Click to enlarge

During the process of selecting the 2015 Chemistry for the Future Solvay laureate, we were followed by two chemistry students from schools in Paris. Together they have developed a number of videos which will give you a taste of the selection process. We felt that it was very important to involve young scientists in this process and it has been amazing to see their enthusiasm for chemistry. We hope that their enthusiasm will help to inspire another generation of scientific innovators.