Number one hundred
Ben Feringa is one of the top researchers of the RUG and is currently member of the Stratingh Institute for Chemistry and the Center for Systems Chemistry at the university. He was elected Foreign Honory member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and is Vice President of the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences (KNAW).
The research program of the Feringa group is focussed on synthetic organic chemistry. Over the years a unique expertise in stereochemistry has been acquired. Inspired by nature’s principles of molecular assembly, recognition, transport, motion and catalysis, the goal is to exploit the full potential of synthetic chemistry to create new structures and functions.
By Anne Carlijn Kok / Animation René Lapoutre
No, Draksharapu (27) is not nervous about receiving his doctorate tomorrow – well, no more nervous than the average PhD student is just before he receives his degree. The fact that he’s such an important milestone in the careers of Feringa and Browne doesn’t makes him extra anxious either. ‘It’s an honour of course’, says Draksharapu modestly. ‘It’s not down to me, though.’
It could have been anyone, says Draksharapu. ‘There will be another PhD student after me, both for Feringa and for Browne – and another one and another one. I have just been lucky. I can imagine that the guy after me wasn’t amused.’
Draksharapu came from India to do his research with Feringa’s team into chemical reactions in the human body and how nature copes with them. He mimics those reactions and characterizes their components. ‘I’m interested in this area of research. Ben started this work in 1995 and then gradually focused on other aspects of chemistry. I continued his research.’
Draksharapu didn’t know until recently that he was Feringa’s 100th PhD candidate. It can happen. Feringa also wasn’t aware that he had supervised 99 PhD students already. ‘I was surprised’, says Feringa. ‘Of course I knew the 100th wasn’t too far away, but I didn’t realize that number had come up. My first student got his doctorate in September 1990, 23 years ago. Time flies, but I’m looking forward to the next generation.’
A proper party for Feringa is planned for May. All PhD students will be invited, though it’s not yet entirely clear what kind of party it’s going to be. ‘A dinner maybe and a symposium’, says Feringa. ‘First, though, we have to track down all 100 PhD graduates, which is quite tricky. When they are in Groningen again, all together, that will be a special moment.’
Of course tomorrow will be special as well for Feringa, although he emphasizes that every PhD student who gets a degree is extraordinary. ‘Every time it’s a four-year adventure and I’m part of it. It’s a privilege that I’ve been able to supervise so many young talents. Vice versa, they have done a lot for us. They have carried out important research and given us an international boost.’
Even though all doctorates are special, Draksharapu’s is extra important. He continued Feringa’s research when Feringa decided on a different direction. ‘In the early 90s I cooperated with Wesley Browne in the field of natural chemical reactions’, Feringa says. ‘After a few years I focused on other aspects of chemistry and Browne opted for a more fundamental direction.’
As it turns out, Browne is Drakshaparu’s first supervisor and Draksharapu is Browne’s – he recently became Professor in Electrochemistry – first official PhD student to receive a doctorate. ‘Browne is much more nervous than I am’, Draksharapu says. ‘I’m not worried at all.’
It’s true. Browne is really nervous. ‘This doctorate is my first official appearance as a professor’, he says. That’s not what makes him anxious the most, though. He is particularly nervous about his personal speech for Draksharapu. ‘It will be an emotional one. Appu is a friend, we’re very close, so I’m losing a friend.’
That’s not the case with every PhD student, Browne admits. ‘I felt sympathy for Appu. These past years I’ve felt his fear, his stress. Chemistry is his life, although he did have a life outside the lab. His return to India is a great loss to me, but an asset to science.’