“I tell my grandchildren not to go after the money”

“I tell my grandchildren not to go after the money”

I am 77 years old. I was born in Changchun (China), under Japanese control, and I live in Indiana, where I am a professor. Married, I have 2 daughters and 4 grandchildren. There are no categories among humans, we are all equal and we must have the same rights. I like Christian philosophy.

“I tell my grandchildren not to go after the money”

Lesson of humility

Son of a salesman who worked for the Manchurian Railway Company, he was a brilliant student, which allowed him to graduate at the age of 23 at the University of Tokyo and to spend most of his career at Purdue University (USA). ). He is one of the most widely quoted organic chemists, but he is a humble and charming man who laughs after every answer. He was awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry at age 69 for something he had discovered more than forty years ago, the so-called Negishi coupling, which has allowed the construction of complex molecules that improve many aspects of our lives. He has given a lecture at the UAB.

What is the most important?
Myself. One must be focused to live as much as possible the life he wants to live, take care of the woman he has chosen and the children he has decided to have, contribute for oneself and his career.

More than forty years ago he discovered important chemical reactions.
I was fortunate, those discoveries have allowed to create drugs against serious diseases, such as AIDS or colon cancer; fluorescent markers for DNA analysis, other products such as LEDs, liquid screens and many types of polymers.

Why did you get the Nobel Prize forty years later?
The real value of most chemical discoveries is not seen until after a few years. I realized that this was very important five years later and most of the scientists ten years later, but the Swedes took a little longer.

You did not patent your method, why?
I have patents in other areas. But I am a scientist, not an entrepreneur, and in this case money for me was secondary. By making my discovery public, the benefits have not gone to a few companies, but to the whole world, and I wanted that.

Only that?
I was satisfied with being the first, there were many people after this discovery. And winning the Nobel was much more important than winning millions and millions of dollars.

When did you start dreaming about the Nobel?
At age 25 I went to do the doctorate in the United States; I received classes from many Nobel prizes, I was impressed and I thought they were superior to the rest, but the more I listened to them and saw them, the more human they seemed to me, and I ended up thinking: “Why do they and I do not?”, heh, je, je …

When he was awarded the Nobel Prize, did he not expect it?
Year after year I was on the candidates’ lists, but they never gave it to me. After six years I said to myself: “I have already done good things because of chemistry, I do not worry about whether they give it to me or not.” And it was at that moment when they gave it to me: when I stopped thinking about him.

How did it happen?
An untimely call at five in the morning. It was a very extraordinary moment: during the previous ten years I felt that I had a cloud in my head and the day after the call I woke up with a clear mind. This is my history.

You will also have known competition and envy.
I have seen continuously many egos crashing, ha ha ha. That of humans is a complex world even within the family. But in spite of that, if we focus on positive things, we will minimize the negative aspects that are always there.

What led you to organic chemistry?
I was interested in electronic engineering, I wanted to work for a large company, like Sony, but someone told me that they paid very badly and I switched to organic chemistry, which had more future. I wanted to get married.

What have you learned?
When I was 20 I suffered from stomach pains and came to the conclusion that there are a few important things in life: health, good relationship with the family (no one wants to live alone), focus on work, think about producing, in contributing, rather than in consuming … and having passions outside of work. Mine is music.

Are you no longer worried about money?
If I take care of my profession, the money arrives, I will not pursue it. I tell my grandchildren not to go after the money.

Why did his stomach hurt?
He was the youngest and brightest student. I would get up at five in the morning and spend two hours to get to the institute. It was all very boring, but my goal was to enter the University of Tokyo, and there was competition.

You were in Yokohama when the tsunami happened.
Yes, in a meeting of alumni. We experienced the earthquake (magnitude 6) and we were lucky: the room was ready and, although some part collapsed, we left unharmed. I saw cities and towns devastated.

And the horror of Fukushima.
You can never say never, but you have to be very strict with the security levels, and, realistically, I think those levels are never fully respected.

His discoveries lead us to another type of energy.
The possibility of reducing CO2 would allow us to obtain fuels, that is the fundamental theme of my current research. I lead three research groups that are working on this because that energy is safe for the planet and for us.

You have seen the dark side of humanity: as a child the war, Fukushima … What is your reflection?
We must be prepared to face positive and negative things and to know that sometimes even positive ones lead us to suffering.

Kerri Simmons

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