Allow researchers to do research without constraints, says Nobel laureate

Danish chemist Morten P. Meldal says the real inventions which will fetch the Nobel prizes of the future will emerge from serendipity

February 07, 2024 09:53 pm | Updated February 08, 2024 12:49 am IST - THIRUVANANTHAPURAM

Nobel laureate Morten P. Mendel who arrived at the Global Science Festival for a public talk seen with students in Thiruvananthapuram on Wednesday.

Nobel laureate Morten P. Mendel who arrived at the Global Science Festival for a public talk seen with students in Thiruvananthapuram on Wednesday. | Photo Credit: S. MAHINSHA

Danish chemist and Nobel laureate Morten P. Meldal on Wednesday underscored the need to allow researchers to do their research “without constraints.”

“A lot of the research tends to go into the applied region. But the real disruptive inventions where the Nobel prizes of the future lie are in the serendipitous discoveries, the things that we cannot predict. That’s where all the novelty is,” Prof. Meldal said, delivering a public lecture at the Global Science Festival Kerala (GSFK) at the Bio 360 Life Sciences Park, Thonnakkal.

Prof. Meldal, who is a professor at the University of Copenhagen, shared the 2022 Nobel Prize in Chemistry with K. Barry Sharpless and Carolyn Bertozzi “for the development of click chemistry and bioorthogonal chemistry.”

Crucial distinction

The distinction between fundamental research and applied research should be understood, according to him. “It’s important that we have fundamental research that can give us disruptive discoveries of the future. But we also need applied research that can develop the research that we already have done into applicable items for the good of the society. Those two things are completely independent, and no politician seems to understand this. These are two entirely different functions,” he said.

In his lecture, Prof. Meldal elaborated on four ‘mantras:’ chemistry is everything (“as everything is keyed into chemical reactions”), youth for chemistry, research without restraints, and funding by performance.

Children and chemistry

He said that children should be exposed to the concepts of chemistry from a  young age. But this should be done with a child-friendly approach rather than through “hard formulas.” Young people should be taught chemistry not as something that they learn when they go to high school, but as a fundamental learning just like writing and reading, he said.

He recalled how he became interested in science as a young boy, playing around in his grandfather’s farm. One thing that puzzled him then was how everything appeared so beautiful. “How is it that nature is able to create this absolute harmony between things that really work together and create a living environment? And why is it that we humans cannot fit very well into that? That I explained with chemistry, actually. Chemistry is the cause of all communication in nature and the reason that nature looks like it does,” he said.

According to Prof. Meldal, what he looks for in students is not factual knowledge, but qualities like intuitive ability, creativity and the capability to combine different fields from different areas and be a “multidisciplinary person.” Prof. Meldal said he was “very honoured” to share the Nobel Prize with Carolyn Bertozzi and Karl Barry Sharpless.

Later on Monday, Prof. Meldal also delivered a lecture at the University of Kerala organised under the ‘Erudite’ lecture programme organised in association with the Kerala State Council for Science, Technology and Environment. He also planted a tree on the university campus.

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