“It is a real pride to be part of the team of a Nobel Prize winner”

What has been the way to become part of a team as prestigious as Dr. Benjamin List, at the Max Planck Institut fu? R Kohlenforschung in Germany?

I studied Chemistry at the University of Barcelona and, when I finished a master’s degree in Organic Chemistry at the same university, I contacted different research groups that interested me and motivated me to do my doctorate. I knew that in Germany there were very powerful teams and, in particular, the Max Planck Institut is very prestigious. I sent them the resume, we did some interviews and luckily everything went well.

Within weeks he was part of Dr. Benjamin List’s asymmetric organocatalysis study group. I joined the team last April.

What is asymmetric organocatalysis and why were you interested in this branch of research?

It is a tool for the construction of molecules that can be beneficial in all types of therapies and medications.

This job requires catalysts, which are substances that control and accelerate chemical reactions. Until twenty years ago this synthesis was done through metals, which meant that all those molecules that were later applied to human beings could have metallic traces. Organocatalysis, on the other hand, relies on small organic molecules that are much more tolerable and easy to remove.

Advances in chemistry often do not go beyond the laboratory and I was precisely interested in this field because it is very applicable on a day-to-day basis. It has multiple uses ranging from new pharmaceuticals, cancer therapies, or inherited diseases. At the Max Planck Institut there are researchers who are working on the production of Covid-19 antivirals, antidepressants, antibiotics, hormones, etc.

What does your research consist of?

I am developing the skeleton of a molecule that could be applied in multiple drugs, such as antidepressants.

In early October, List and received the Nobel Prize in Chemistry alongside David MacMillan. How did you live the experience?

Honestly, nobody expected that this year they would win the Nobel.

It was a great surprise. They are both very young and we thought it would take some time for them to receive this prestigious recognition. We all bet that this year the award would go to advances in synthetic messenger RNA, which have been key to developing the vaccine against Covid-19.

Living this experience up close was very exciting. When the winners were announced, we were in the laboratory and some colleagues were following the ceremony on the computer. Suddenly we hear ‘And this year’s Nobel Prize in Chemistry goes to….’

It was a moment of nerves and confusion because the members of the academy were speaking in Swedish, but suddenly we heard the names of List and MacMillan. Everyone started running and screaming with joy. We could not believe it! We stopped working and started organizing a big party for Benjamin, who was traveling at the time. It was amazing and I am very proud to be part of this team.

Has the work in the lab changed after the award?

No. The first few weeks we were a bit ‘shocked’. Many journalists came and, of course, List was never in high school. But everything is back to normal. The doctor continues to attend the weekly seminars and discuss with us about each project.

His mother, Marian Moralejo, is also a research chemist at the Agrotecnio center of the University of Lleida (UdL). Was she the one who instilled your passion for science?

Of course! One of the great problems of science is the lack of female referents. My mother has always been my reference. It was she who aroused my curiosity and interest in experimentation from a very young age.

What is your professional goal?

I am very early in my career, but I would like to continue in the research field. There are other topics that interest me, such as organometallic compounds.

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“It is a real pride to be part of the team of a Nobel Prize winner”