When I was at high school, I had excellent teachers and my chemistry teacher in particular was very stimulating and inspired me a lot. I think that set me on the track to go into natural sciences and particularly into chemistry. I was really intrigued by the fact that you could do experiments yourself, that you could make materials, see beautiful colours and crystals.
I went to university and studied chemistry and I got really excited by chemistry in my third year, when for the first time, we could do small research projects. I remember the sheer feeling of excitement that I made a molecule that the professor said, as far as he knew, had never been made in the world before. It was an absolutely useless molecule I think, but it was such a feeling of ‘wow’.
It's a bit like being an artist, I think, when you make a new piece of music, or a new painting, or a new piece of a poem. I think that lured me into research.
What interests you the most about your area of research?
There is a lot to be discovered, but what excites me most is the whole shift in the area where I work, from molecules to more dynamic molecular systems.
There are all kinds of molecules that work in concert to do responsive functions – ultimately leading to systems that show life-like behaviours. These things have the complexity and functions that we typically see in nature, but aren’t limited at all by the building blocks that Mother Nature uses.
Out of everything in your life, not necessarily just in chemistry, what are you most proud of?
In my professional life, I'm most proud of the generations of young scientists that I had the privilege to mentor, and who are now building their independent careers in industry, teaching and academia.
I'm absolutely proud of what these young people have established and how they are building their own independent careers and bringing the message to the next generation.
In my private life, I'm extremely proud of my family that have supported me all these years. As my wife Betty always says, being a scientist is a way of living and that reflects on the family. It's really wonderful; we have three daughters and how they build their own lives – I'm really grateful for that, I'm really proud of them.
What has been your biggest challenge?
One of the biggest challenges, after we discovered the molecular motor, was definitely to put these motors on surfaces to make molecular action. That took several years, but we built a tiny windmill park, and it ultimately worked out fine. To build our nano-car and see that we could move something with a rotary motor in a translational way took 7-8 years.
I see it as a really positive thing, that you have these tough challenges, because on your way, you have to find new ways to get round a problem. That is a very steep learning curve and is very important for this whole process.
With our nano-car, we made designs that didn't work. With our rotary motors on surfaces, these tiny nano-windmills, we sometimes had designs that didn't work. You learn it stepwise, and that learning curve is an important aspect of these tremendous challenges.