Professor Feringa? Just call him Ben

For the RUG, this year is all about chemistry. In September, students voted the bachelor and master programmes as the best of their kind. The highest scores were reserved for the instructors, including professor and Nobel Prize winner Ben Feringa. What is it like to work with him? The UK visited his team.
By Nina Yakimova and Karlijn ter Horst / Translation by Sarah van Steenderen

At Nijenborgh 4, home to brand new Nobel Prize winner Ben Feringa and his team at the Zernike campus, people have somewhat recovered from the shock and euphoria. But the celebratory mood meant work was at least temporarily left by the wayside.

In the research group’s labs and offices, everything is still in the exact same place it was left on Wednesday morning after the announcement. Empty crates of beer, stacked in a corner, are the only silent witnesses to the party the group had.

‘Chemistry family’

And party they did. All of them. And ‘all of them’ really means all of them: we are a group, a team. A chemistry family. Ben Feringa deserves the credit for that strong bond, says Filippo Tosi from Italy. ‘He wanted a diverse group from different research fields, and he encourages us to help each other and learn from each other.’

What’s more, Feringa deliberately composed the group of people with different nationalities and cultural backgrounds. Because Feringa specifically emphasises collaboration, there is a ‘deeper connection’ between the group members, feels Michael Lerch from Switzerland.

That connection is tangible. There is a pleasant atmosphere in the Nijenborgh office as people talk about the past few days over coffee. Music can be heard wafting through the lab, while a researcher in a white coat and safety goggles on dances as he rinses a bottle. No one seems to think this is weird.

Father

The newly christened Nobel Prize winner Feringa is not just beloved as a scientist, but also as a person. His team thinks of him like a father; not strict, but rather forgiving and laid back. Whenever his busy schedule permits, he ambles through the lab to have a chat with his people.

‘He really surprises me – a world famous chemist who feels and talks like a common person. He would never relate to us as superior’, says Tosi. ‘The first period I used to call him ‘professor’ and he corrected me: ‘you need to call me Ben’.’

And whenever the going gets tough, Feringa knows how to encourage them, says Anouk Lubbe. ‘He has quite a talent for motivating people.’ Tosi adds: ‘We always know that we can knock on his door and ask for opinions, and he always tries to find some time for us.’ Polish researcher Wojtek Danowski describes him as friendly, helpful, and always ready to discuss things.

Shoulder to shoulder

This close-knit research family that Feringa has created takes up almost the entire second floor at Nijenborgh 4. In a long, narrow office next to the lab, (student) researchers literally work shoulder to shoulder. His office is around the corner, and his door is usually open.

A small part of the group operates out of the Linnaeusborg next door. But the distance does not make them any less a part of the family, says Lerch. ‘We work really closely together. Even though we all have lives of our own, we share a lot.’

Once every two weeks, the four work groups that make up Feringa’s team meet to discuss research results and come up with new ideas together. Feringa instigated that tradition. ‘He is always present at these meetings, despite his busy schedule’, says Tosi.

He never blithely dismisses negative results: ‘He actually encourages us to work on them. Sometimes you leave a meeting with a completely different plan than the one you came in with.’

Recuperating

But no one has really worked on any plans in the past few days. Most of the PhD candidates are still recuperating. On Thursday evening, the entire group travelled to Amsterdam to attend a recording of De Wereld Draait Door, where Feringa was a guest. He joined his group on the journey home, like any ‘ordinary’ man.

Filippo Tosi will always remember the day the Nobel Prize winners were announced, especially when Feringa, standing in the doorway, addressed ‘his’ people, Tosi says, clearly moved. ‘When the news was announced and he came out of his office, there was just one thing he did: thank us. He said we were the only reason he won that prize.’

 

The video accompanying this article was made by Alessandro Ferrari, who was there for Nobel Prize winner Ben Feringa’s first words.

 

 

Nederlands

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