The 2021 Nobel Prize in Chemistry was awarded to David MacMillan and Benjamin List, who are credited for developing asymmetric organocatalysis — a way of catalyzing reactions using organic molecules to form specific copies of a compound. This tool increases the capabilities of medicinal chemistry. MacMillan and List, director at the Max Planck Institute for Coal Research, came across the concept simultaneously yet an ocean apart in the late 1990s.
A year ago, I promised myself that my last semester at Cornell would be chill. Every time I sat in the physics learning center staring blankly at yet another problem about a skydiver jumping out of a plane, I would calm my inner rage and frustration by assuring myself that I would get a nice, well-deserved break to round off my senior year. I had heard one too many stories about students taking just 12 credits in their last semester, most of which were an assortment of “comically easy” classes that one could “get an A+ in by only attending the final” (I’m quoting directly from RateMyProfessor here). I couldn’t wait to answer the notorious “how is your semester going?” question honestly, and maybe even remember what it felt like to not be perpetually tired. Well, that didn’t work out at all.
It was 1995, and a young William Dichtel had finished taking all the science classes available in his small high school in Roanoke, Virginia. His chemistry teacher, who happened to have a Ph.D., tutored the budding scientist in organic chemistry. “I went to college, took more classes in chemistry, and the rest is history,” Dichtel says. Today, Prof. William Dichtel, chemistry, studies how to build new organic materials that may have promising use in our daily lives, from more efficient batteries to highly sensitive explosive detectors. Apart from research, he also teaches organic chemistry and is involved in efforts to improve undergraduate science education.