Letters from Lindau: An introduction

Editor’s note: Anthea Blackburn is a graduate student based in the US who will be attending the 63rd Lindau Meeting of Nobel Laureates (this year dedicated to chemistry) in Germany next month. Anthea will write daily blog posts from the meeting for the Sceptical Chymist.

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

Hello Sceptical Chymist Readers!

Have you ever thought about which three historical figures, past or present, you would most like to have dinner with? My dinner party would almost certainly feature Nobel Laureates — ever since I developed an interest in science I have been fascinated with the people who have received this prize. While cramming with friends for exams during my undergraduate studies in chemistry I realized that I wasn’t alone in my admiration — discussions about which Nobel Laureates we would most like to meet were common.

Of course, we were born a few decades too late to meet most of the scientists that we learned about in class and in our textbooks — van ’t Hoff, Diels, Alder and Pauling, for example. More recently, however, as my scientific career has progressed into graduate studies, the Laureates that intrigue me the most are those who were awarded the prize for concepts I use on a daily basis — the likes of Suzuki, Negishi, Heck, Lehn, Cram, Pedersen and Ernst — many of whom are still alive and kicking.

And that dinner party with the scientists who have contributed so much to our understanding of the molecular world around us? Well, come July, what I thought was an elusive dream will be (partly) coming true. Each year, the Lindau Nobel Laureate Meetings are held in Lindau, a small island town on Lake Constance, Germany, where young researchers from around the world are selected to meet with a group (what is the collective noun for Nobelists?!) of Nobel Laureates from a particular field. The meetings foster interactions between the Laureates and the young scientists through presentations, discussions and many, many social events. This year the meeting, the 63rd of its kind, will focus on chemistry, and I have been fortunate enough to be selected to spend a week mingling with 34 Nobel Laureates and other young researchers from around the world.

I write today, however, to introduce myself, before I embark on this incredible scientific voyage. I am a born-and-bred New Zealander, who has been living in Chicago for the last three years studying chemistry at Northwestern University under the tutelage of a Scot. I have been working on a few interesting projects throughout my graduate career thus far, all of which stem from the synthesis and characterization of topologically interesting and mechanically interlocked molecules. As a graduate student at a school with a large chemistry department, I have the privilege of hearing from very successful chemists about their research in formal settings like lectures and seminars. Although this environment exposes me to the latest exciting science, it does not offer the chance for students like myself to easily talk with established scientists in an informal setting.

Fortunately for me, this is one of the main themes of the Lindau Meetings — discussions between students and Laureates outside of the lecture theatre are a core aspect of the event. Of course, I am looking forward to learning about Nobel Prize-worthy science, but as a chemist interested in inspiring science and making it applicable to the general public, I am much more excited to have the opportunity to talk to these Laureates and interact with them on a more personal level. These scientists have clearly excelled in sharing and presenting their research successes with the scientific community, and, upon being awarded the Nobel Prize, with non-experts, as well as the general public, so I am preparing to absorb as much of their expertise and technique as I can — any information I can gain will only make me a better communicator, scientific and otherwise!

The next time I write will be from Germany. As a way of sharing what goes on at these meetings, I will be writing daily Sceptical Chymist updates during my time in Lindau, starting on Monday July 1st. Check out my Twitter feed as well — @antheablackburn — I’ll be tweeting during the meeting too. I am excited to share stories of my experiences, my thoughts from Lindau, and my interactions with the superstars of science.