Me by Professor Sir David MacMillan
Professor Sir David MacMillan (BSc 1989), winner of the Nobel Prize in Chemistry 2021, is passionate about the importance of communicating complex science to the public in accessible ways and likens giving a good lecture to watching a movie: “you have to be able to take the audience with you.” The James S McDonnell Distinguished Professor of Chemistry at Princeton University spoke to Avenue about his Scottish roots and the Nobel experience.
Can you explain in simple terms exactly what you won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for?
I won it for this thing called asymmetric organocatalysis. Everything around you is made from a chemical reaction and all those reactions require energy. Catalysis removes or reduces that energy to allow you to do things that you couldn’t do before. I was interested to find out whether you could do catalysis with organic molecules instead of metals or enzymes. We eventually figured it out, published at roughly the same time as Ben [Benjamin List, Dave’s Nobel Prize in Chemistry co-winner], and then it sort of took off and the world went crazy, which was lovely.
Tell us a bit about how you found out you had won the Nobel Prize?
I was lying in bed about 5:30am and realised Ben was trying to contact me. So I give him a call and he goes, “Dave, we won it. The Nobel.” I'm thinking, no, I know exactly what this is … I thought it was a joke. So I put the phone down. He texts me again. I text back saying, “No, I bet you $1,000 this is not happening, I'm going back to sleep.”
When I eventually went downstairs, I got a coffee and went to the 'New York Times' website to see who had actually won the Chemistry Prize. There was this artist's rendition of a person who looked a bit like me, and then I started to see messages showing up on my computer; in fact, I received over 4,000 messages in a couple of hours. So I went upstairs and said to my wife, “I think I've just won a Nobel Prize.” I can't repeat what she said! But we had a big hug and a big cry, actually; we were both immediately overwhelmed. Then we woke up my 16-year-old daughter at 6am, which is not easy, went downstairs and had a wee dance in the kitchen. The happiest I've ever been to lose $1,000.
"When I saw the Nobel medal for the first time, it was one of the most stunning moments of my life. I'll never forget it.
Why do you attribute your career success partly to a Scottish education?
I came from a very working-class background. I lived in a council house, and my teachers worked hard to make sure that this sort of ragamuffin group of kids got a really good education. They had a passion and a pride about it, and in retrospect, they got us to a very high level. You don't quite realise it until you come into contact with other people from other parts of the world.
UofG in particular was the launchpad to an illustrious career – how did your experience here help you in the years that followed?
Going to university opens up so many doors and gives you access to the world. It was an incredible time, in terms of getting to meet all these professors, who would sit down and talk to you about the work, the science, the world … then there was the social part. The last two years of uni, I'm amazed I actually got through any work because it was just so much fun. I'm surprised I'm not still sitting in the QM to this day.
"My student self wouldn’t believe it if you told me of my success now. I couldn't even begin to comprehend that this would happen to me. But it's all stepping stones along the way to get you there. Just because you can't see it at the time doesn't mean to say good stuff is not going to happen in the future.
What are some of the personal attributes you think allowed you to reach the heights of winning a Nobel Prize?
Being from where I grew up, you have to be able to communicate with people, not just get the information across, but ultimately connect and engage with them. I think Scottish people are really good at that, and many people would say it’s one of the most important things in science, actually.
What has some of the fallout been from winning the prize?
Probably the biggest surprise was when [former football manager] Sir Alex Ferguson called me up to congratulate me a week after the announcement. He called while I was driving and I had to pull over otherwise I would have run off the road. He gave me tons of incredible advice. We talked about his upbringing by the shipyards and my upbringing by the steelworks, and what my responsibilities now were to myself, my family and to Scotland. We talked about US and Scottish history and, probably the best part, about “Yes, Sir, I can boogie” [the Scotland football team’s new dance anthem].
How often do you get back to Scotland and what do you enjoy doing when you’re here?
I like to come back at least twice a year. I love hanging out with the family, drinking too much tea, eating what we would call ‘a piece and salad cream’, which is just bread with salad cream on it. It’s brilliant. Going for curries. Going to the football. Going down the pub. But I do now also enjoy touring around Scotland. Up north, Speyside ... it's just so ridiculously beautiful.
Dave’s memories of UofG
As a student, I was a bit up and down across the board. I had a great time interacting with all the academics, which was incredibly educational in itself. Everyone thinks that their year was the best, but our year WAS the best. We all studied hard, but had a fantastic time as well. I went to the snooker hall a lot, the QM during the week for the bands and the GUU on a Friday for the beer.
When I went to lectures at the physics lecture theatre, it was freezing. When it rained, the roof would leak and you'd sit and get rained on during lectures. In the chemistry lecture theatre, it was really nice and warm and the lecture was an hour later. So that’s why I decided to concentrate on chemistry!
I loved organic chemistry. I really, really loved it and I found it pretty straightforward to learn about. It was one of those subject matters that was almost like breathing for me. Other areas of chemistry I was terrible at, and still am.
One of my professors, Ernie Colvin, gave me a hard time when I missed the lecture on enantiomers because I went to see the Scotland-Cyprus football game. He took me aside and said, you can't do that, enantiomers are important. I was like, “Are they?” I didn't know. Turns out this Nobel Prize is actually about enantiomers, so it’s kind of ironic that all these years later I get a Nobel Prize for enantiomers, having missed the initial lecture in the first place.
In my field, we're doing a lot of work with light, which is really exciting and actually has pretty big implications for disease states. We're going into cells and starting to see how things are interacting with each other in a way we couldn't see before, using this new technique.
My personal ambition is to not mess it up as a Nobel Prize winner!
This article was first published March 2022 and updated June 2022.