by Cătălin Radu
When he doesn’t play classical pieces on the piano, it’s either blues or rock on his guitars. However, way more than often, Brian Corbet spends his time surrounded by flasks and beakers or condensers and tubes. He was born in Hoogeveen, The Netherlands, in 1993, and until recently had no idea that he would become the youngest member of a group whose leader, Dr. Ben Feringa, was awarded the Nobel Prize in chemistry.
Brian started working with the Feringa group when he was still a bachelor student. After joining the team, he was assigned research projects involving lithium, the lightest existing metal and the least dense solid element known to man. If it sounds like a difficult thing to do, it’s because that’s exactly right. And even more than an appetite for difficult labor, a sense of learning from missteps, time and again, was more than required.
A happy chemist
They put molecules together to build larger and “smarter” molecules. But the projects don’t always work. They almost never work, that is. It’s just something that happens in chemistry. “You never know ahead of time if something will work or not. In research, 90 percent of the results are negative, so we can actually say that most things don’t work. But then again, if you would already know that something works beforehand, what’s the point in researching it? What we do is discover new things and, in the unknown, a lot will not work”, Brian explains.
However frustrating it might be, scientists have also discovered the cure for it. How do they cope? “Well, it helps to have people to complain to. If you walk around in our offices, you’ll often hear ‘this is working like crap!’ or ‘why didn’t it work?!?’ and so on. Everybody goes through this and it helps”, said Brian Corbet.
Even though he isn’t currently considering continuing his career in the academic field, but instead going into industry, the young chemist talks passionately about research. “When something actually works, you feel really relieved. And sometimes it’s almost magic! My reaction works? This shouldn’t happen, it’s not normal! Sometimes you can try for months and months and months and nothing goes right, but then at some point it just clicks and you understand how the reaction works and everything is absolutely perfect”.
Sharing the Nobel
The “smart” molecules – that brought Ben Feringa the most sought over distinction in the scientific world – are also adding weight to Brian’s resume. They know how to move, how to steer where the scientists program them to do so, building both the future of nanotechnology and of the group members. “Part of being in the Feringa team is that his name is known and opens many doors. One of the things Ben earlier said was that he hopes this will benefit all of us. It’s very much a boost that he won the Nobel Prize, a very important one for all of our CV’s. But he was already a big name in chemistry. All around the world, if you say Feringa, people interested in this domain will know exactly who you’re talking about”, Brian revealed.
Sometimes, chemists talk about strange dangers. At points, after explaining some complicated process, Brian might say something like this: “There’s always the danger of not getting selective reactions, then it all degrades”. These kind of arguments, along with descriptions of cathalysis reactions and troposelective molecules, are exactly what suggest that the Feringa group means future in the making. The work they’re doing now is only eventually going to be applied.
For example, in the pharmaceutical field, reactions researched by chemists will allow other scientists to faster synthetize a needed treatment. But the need for one of these “shortcuts”, as Brian calls them, might take 10, 20, 30 years.
“Lost” in the lab
If anyone would have to choose, based solely on looks, what better fits Brian between a guitar and a chemistry set, they would go for the guitar every, single, time. “I consider music to be a hobby. I play the guitar, bass, the piano, a bit of drums, the ukulele, anything I can get my hands on, basically”, said the chemist. His different instruments have different sounds assigned to them. On his guitar, he plays blues and rock. On his piano, classical music. “It’s very difficult to break through in the music life. My old piano teacher used to say ‘don’t go into music, because it’s very difficult to build a career’. And he tried to do it, to be a concert pianist, but he became a piano teacher, which was definitely not his initial goal“.
If he hypothetically needed to, Brian would even forsake music for his greater passion. “If I had to give up one of the two, I’d choose chemistry over music. Science in itself can never be wrong”, argued Brian. A strange choice, some might say. Yet for the youngest member of a chemistry Nobel Prize winning team, poking the unknown is what it’s all about.
“I love making something that was never done before, it is fascinating. When you’re doing the work, it might seem like routine. But when you think about it later you realize that, hey, nobody has ever done this before! I think it’s beautiful that we only realize it afterwards. You never think about it when you’re doing it, because it’s just work, and then you discover that you were the first in the entire world who built a specific molecule. Now that’s what I call exciting!”.