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Why We Need to Train Scientists for the Future

2016 Chemistry Nobel Laureate Professor Ben L. Feringa toured India from March 11, 2019, for two weeks as the Indian Academy of Sciences’  CV Raman Chair Professor.  Gert Heijkoop, Consul-general of the Netherlands, hosted a welcome event in the honor of Professor Feringa at his residence in Bangalore.

I had the honor to attend this event and spend a few hours in conversation with Professor Feringa, during which he shared his vision for the future of science, saying it must be global and beyond boundaries. Science can not be done in isolation, he told me, there needs to be more collaboration and cross-training to benefit from each other.

“We often don’t realize and there is a general tendency to look only short term,” he said. “I cannot emphasize enough that we need to train our young talent not just for today but for 10 years from now as they will be the leaders of tomorrow to handle upcoming challenges.”

“What are the solutions for 10 years from now, not just for today? I don’t blame politicians for it; universities and institutions need to think longer term. Let me give you an example: You like your smartphone! My students cannot imagine that there was life without smartphones! It is just 12 years ago that we had the first smartphone — but the fundamental discoveries in physics, chemistry, and materials were done in 1949-1950. Nobody knew we would have smartphones; even computers were not available at that time. It took 50 years from fundamental science to develop the first smartphone. There needs to be a good balance among societal needs, industrial need, and fundamental knowledge,” he said.

Professor Feringa added that there are a lot of opportunities for industries, universities, and research institutes to work together. In the past, he has worked with Shell, Unilever, and other companies and holds several joint patents. In addition,  two of his graduate students have recently launched a start-up, so there is a continuous need to stimulate industry-academia collaborations.

“There has been a lot done in the IT space, now it is needed in chemistry, physics, and materials. Universities and institutes have a mission to produce good research and fundamental knowledge. On the other hand, they can also work with industries. In India, I see many science startups emerging, which is good for the country. It is difficult to predict the future, but there is a lot of opportunities. Think, for example, about new ways of doing medicine, precision therapy, precision detection, or self-healing organs. Interesting problems in science are often inspired by societal problems — clear water, clear air, new drugs, and so on are areas that need a lot more attention, and innovative science has a solution for them,” he said.

When asked about what is required to do good science, Professor Feringa says it is important to create a conducive ecosystem, which includes good facilities, intellectually stimulating discussions, good colleagues, the right attitude and mindset, a meritocratic culture, and quality information. Professor Feringa warned that there is a ‘Tsunami’ of information available. He says one has to be cautious, prioritize quality over quantity and, continuously check the authenticity and reliability of information because it directly affects the quality of the science we do. However, there is no easy recipe for good science, and there are several factors affecting quality that vary from country to country.

“Since I am an organic chemist and India has quite a good quality organic chemistry research, I can see that good quality materials science work is also produced here,” he said. The next step is for researchers to think about how to take that work further, in a way that addresses societal and industrial needs.

Professor Feringa says he is enthusiastic about how nanotechnology can change the world.“It is not just that a single human cell is a nanomachine, indeed the human body itself is the most complex and sophisticated compilation of several nanomachines, the future is fascinating and hard to predict,” he says.

He says that when he thinks back on what shaped his life, he acknowledges the importance of having good role models. “I am grateful to my teachers for inspiring and guiding me from time to time, particularly my chemistry teacher in high-school. He influenced my decision to further pursuing chemistry, it is important to have inspirational role models in our life”.

Professor Ben L. Feringa has been a member of ACS for 40 years and has published more than 200 research articles in ACS Publications journals. He won the James Flack Norris Award in Physical Organic Chemistry in 2007, which is sponsored by the ACS Northeastern Section, and the Arthur C. Cope Scholar Award in 2015. He is a member of the Editorial Advisory Board for the Journal of the American Chemical Society (JACS), Accounts of Chemical Research, and The Journal of Organic Chemistry.

Don’t miss our earlier conversation with Professor Feringa in C&EN “Ben L. Feringa reflects on his first year as a Nobel laureate

Nobel Laureate Professor Ben Feringa; Dr. Deeksha Gupta, Managing Editor, American Chemical Society, Mr. Gert Heijkoop, Consul-general of the Netherlands and his wife Ms. Dienske Keijser at his residence in Bangalore.

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