Growing up, my Mom used to say I would win a Nobel Prize one day. I did not fully grasp the worldly accomplishment nor the impact of such a prize until I started working toward my doctorate in bioinorganic chemistry.
Spending hours upon years reading the literature to keep up with advancements in my field. Working for weeks or months straight to synthesize my target compounds. Feeling like an absolute failure when I could not reproduce a published method to save my life. Bittersweet tears of joy when my experiments worked AND supported my hypothesis.
After five years of blood, sweat, and living off rice and beans, I now empathize with how rewarding winning a Nobel Prize is. And, I think every scientist secretly fantasizes about winning one, myself included.
For now, my days of hardcore research passed, I live vicariously in writing about the laureates. Here is a recap of the 2021 Nobel Prize winners in science and their distinguished accomplishments.
Benjamin List and David MacMillan received the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for their work in asymmetric organocatalysis, helping chemists speed up reactions, achieve quantitative yields, and construct enantioselective compounds without toxic metals like ruthenium or thermolabile enzymes.
This branch of organic chemistry is critical to improving the large-scale synthesis of natural products and drugs because biologically active compounds typically bind to chiral receptors in your body — a classic illustration of how structure determines function.
The story of thalidomide babies is a famous example of how stereochemistry affects how drugs work in your body. The drug was manufactured and prescribed to patients as a racemic mixture, with the (S)-enantiomer causing congenital disabilities in pregnant women.
So, yeah, finding greener and more efficient ways to create enantiopure pure chemicals are a game-changer.
The Nobel Prize in Physics was for contributions to understanding complex systems, aka how the planet works. Three physicists, Syukuro Manabe, Klaus Hasselmann and Giorgio Parisi, share this year’s award for their groundbreaking work in developing climate models to demonstrate how carbon dioxide makes the planet hotter, and finding order in disorder.
The greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide, water vapor and methane keep the planet livable by trapping heat from the sun. Building on the principles of the greenhouse effect, their mathematical models effectively demonstrate how increased carbon dioxide emissions and human behavior are a cause of the rising temperatures.
Global warming poses a threat to most life on Earth, and the climate models are accurate, whether you believe them or not. The good news is, we can use these models as tools to develop a plan and save our planet.
Physiology or Medicine laureates
Like Boston sings, it’s more than feeling.
Your sensory nerves serve a protective mechanism for how your body detects and responds to heat, cold, pain and mechanical stimuli. For their discovery of temperature and touch receptors, David Julius and Ardem Patapoutian share the Nobel Prize in Medicine.
Nociception is the medical term for sensing pain and comes from activating TRPV receptors in your body. David Julius was the first to elucidate vanilloid receptors activated by capsaicin are why you get hot and feel the burn when you eat spicy food.
Proprioception is your body’s ability to sense movement and location. Like when you touch your nose with your eyes closed and walk without having to think about moving your foot or looking down. Ardem Patapoutian was the first to identify mechanically activated ion channels called PIEZO.
Side note, if anyone needs a test subject for capsaicin experiments, I am willing!
To all the future Nobel Prize winners …
The lifestyle of a scientist is unlike any other, and like a lot of things in life, the path to success is not linear.
It’s more like one step forward and three steps back until the day you finally make a revolutionary discovery.
Stay disciplined, ignore the naysayers, and never give up!