On First-Name Terms with a Nobel Laureate

In the middle prof. Bernard L. Feringa together with Wojciech Danowski M.Sc. (left) and Wiktor Szymański Ph.D. Eng. (right); phot. Private Archive

Warsaw University of Technology Graduates Talk About Collaborating with Chemistry Nobel Prize Laureates

This year, the most important award for chemists went to Jean-Pierre Sauvage (Professor Emeritus at the University of Strasbourg and CNRS Director of Research Emeritus), Sir James Fraser Stoddart (Northwestern University in Evanston, USA) and Bernard L. Feringa (University of Groningen). They received the award for designing and synthesizing molecular machines, which will be used in development of new materials, sensors and energy storage systems.

Three scientist related to the Warsaw University of Technology had (and still have) an opportunity to collaborate with this year’s Nobel laureates. Wiktor Szymański, PhD (Eng) and Wojciech Danowski, MSc (Eng) participated in research of Prof. Feringa’s team, while Wojciech Bury, PhD (Eng), as part of collaboration between research groups, has already published papers together with Prof. Stoddart.

Exceptional Wednesday

Last Wednesday – i.e. on the day the chemistry Nobel laureates were announced – Dr. Szymański had a meeting with Prof. Feringa at 10:30. “We have a common doctoral student and we were just discussing his projects”, says the researcher. “At 10:45 a phone rang... as it turned out, it was the phone all scientists dream of. Ben was upset that someone interrupted him when he was discussing science, as that is what he likes best. He asked us to wait in front of his office. Laureates are informed an hour before the official announcement and they’re free to inform whoever they want. So, Ben asked us inside and, like nothing ever happened, he finished the meeting, giving many good pieces of advice regarding the projects. I still can’t imagine how he was able to sit still knowing that he just received the Nobel Prize...”.

“On Wednesday, like every year, we were watching the Nobel Prize Committee conference”, says Wojciech Danowski. “Suddenly, they said: ‘This year’s chemistry Nobel Prize concerns the world’s smallest machines’, I though it wasn’t really happening. Judging by the reactions of my colleagues, everyone thought the same. Ben is best described by how he acted after receiving the prize. Just after the phone conference with the Nobel Committee, he left his office and simply thanked all doctoral students, post-docs and employees. What’s more, he added that this award is essentially for all of us, for working hard together. Then he turned away and locked himself in his office”.

The fact that both WUT graduates collaborating with Prof. Feringa refer to him as Ben is, naturally, not a coincidence or a mistake. In the Netherlands, even at universities, relationships are much more casual than in Poland. However, the joy from receiving a Nobel Prize is the same everywhere.

Offer You Can’t Refuse

“I went to Groningen... after my wife”, Dr. Szymański reminisces. “Her doctoral advisor, Prof. Zbigniew Brzózka (Faculty of Chemistry, WUT) had contacts the Faculty of Pharmacy here, and he sent her for a three-month Erasmus exchange in 2007. At the time, I was a doctoral student at the Department of Technology and Biotechnology of Medicines (Faculty of Chemistry, WUT) and I also wanted to see how chemistry is done in the Netherlands, so I joined Prof. Feringa’s group for three months at the Stratingh Institute at the University of Groningen. During my doctoral studies, under the care of Prof. Ryszard Ostaszewski (at the time – FoC, WUT and the Institute of Organic Chemistry of the Polish Academy of Sciences), I combined organic synthesis with biocatalysis, so I could participate in an asymmetric catalysis project in Groningen”.

Dr. Szymański liked the work in Groningen so much that he applied for a post-doctoral fellowship. Prof. Feringa and Prof. Dick Janssen were actually looking for someone to work with them on a two-year-long biocatalysis project. The young scientist from our University was the perfect candidate. Only one problem remained. “My doctoral contract was expiring in September 2008, and the Dutch project was supposed to begin in May”, Dr. Szymański explains. “Only thanks to the great understanding and help of my adviser was I able to make all of this happen on time. And barely... I finally arrived at the Schiphol airport 20 hours after defending my thesis”.


Then the cooperation with professors Feringa and Janssen began. “I learned very much during these first two years”, Dr. Szymański describes. “I also learned the ins and outs of the world of molecular motors and photoswitches, which Ben’s group was already known for, and became famous for last Wednesday. So, I was very happy when Ben, at the end of my post-doctoral fellowship (2010), offered me a four-year contract. I was to build a team that would work on the use of photocontrolled molecules for biological applications”.

As part of the research, the scientists have created the basis for photopharmacology. It’s all about designing and synthesizing medicines that you can turn on or off using light. Dr. Szymański explains what it means in practice: “We have designed antibiotics that don’t kill bacteria in their dormant state, so they don’t increase resistance. But if we illuminate them using UV light, they become active for a few hours, and we can potentially use them to treat infections”.

More information about research conducted by Dr. Szymański’s team can be found at: www.szymanski-lab.com. “Currently, we’re working on chemotherapeutic agents that can be turned on in a selected place in the patient’s body, potentially reducing their side effects”, says the scientist who moved to the University Medical Center Groningen in 2014 and, last year, began his work with his research team.

Everything in order to give the conducted research a more clinical nature. “I still closely collaborate with Ben, and his laboratories form a basis for all my synthetic activities”, says Dr. Szymański. And he adds: “Eight year of cooperation, 45 joint publications... I don’t know how many pages I would have to fill to describe how wise, modest and wonderful Ben is”.

Doctorate at a Nobel Laureate

At Groningen, another graduate of the Faculty of Chemistry, WUT develops his research career. Wojciech Danowski wrote his master’s thesis under Prof. Janusz Lewiński, PhD (Eng) (whose team has developed a method of creating ZnO quantum dots that retain their luminescent properties). He prepares his doctoral thesis in Prof. Feringa’s research group. He says, however, that he can’t divulge what exactly he’s working on. “I met Ben when I went for one semester to Groningen as part of the Erasmus programme”, our University’s student describes. “At his laboratory, I conducted research in the molecular motor subgroup. During these few months I’ve seen and discovered that science has a completely different dimension there. It’s not just work and pursuing a goal, but also a tight-knit team of kind people that mutually motivate themselves, which means that even a failure quickly turns to success”.

After returning from the Netherlands, Wojciech Danowski finished his studies at the University and defended his master’s thesis. Soon after that he received a message from Prof. Feringa – a proposal to obtain a doctoral degree in his research group. The young scientist admits that he agreed without a shadow of a doubt. He’s been in Groningen since December 2014.

Cooperation Above All

Wojciech Bury, PhD (Eng) – graduate and former employee of the Faculty of Chemistry, WUT (Prof. Lewiński was adviser for his doctoral thesis, for which he received the award of the President of the Council of Ministers), currently working at the Faculty of Chemistry of the University of Wrocław, can be proud of joint papers with another current Nobel laureate – Prof. Stoddart. He states though that he was not and is not a member of his team. In 2011-2014 he was enrolled in a post-doctoral fellowship at the Northwestern University, where Prof. Stoddart has been working since 2008.

Dr. Bury’s fellowship was supervised by Prof. Joseph T. Hupp. “Activity of research groups at that university was greatly based on cooperation”, the former WUT employee explains. “They organize joint seminars, science sessions, so that people specializing in different fields could conduct joint projects”.

The groups often have similar scientific interest, which facilitates joint activities even more. Prof. Hupp’s and Prof. Stoddart’s teams have begun close collaboration in 2012. “I had the privilege to work with Prof’ Stoddart’s fellows, so we were able to jointly solve some synthetic problems related to creating new porous materials, which was the topic that I was mainly interested in”, Dr. Bury describes.

As a result of these works, the following scientific articles were published: “Metal-organic framework thin films composed of free-standing acicular nanorods exhibiting reversible electrochromism” (published in 2013 in “Chemistry Materials”) and “Ultrahigh Surface Area Zirconium MOFs and Insights into the Applicability of the BET Theory” (published in “Journal of the American Chemical Society” in 2015). “Of course, I wasn’t the only person in Prof. Hupp’s team engaged in collaboration with Prof. Stoddart’s group”, says the graduate of the Warsaw University of Technology. “Last week many of my fellowship friends have posted information about papers they wrote with a Noble laureate on their Facebook profiles”.

Waiting for a Polish Nobel Prize

These are not the only connections of the Warsaw University of Technology with this year’s chemistry Nobel laureates.

“I’d like to remind you that Ben was a guest at the YoungChem 2010”, Wojciech Danowski adds.

It’s a conference organized by the Chemistry Science Club “Flogiston”, operating at our University, aimed at chemistry students and doctoral students worldwide.

Maybe soon our researches will also receive a Nobel Prize?


Agnieszka Kapela

Office for Promotion and Information