What’s the background of a Noble Prize winner in chemistry, where are the next innovations in science, and how do you say “asymmetric organocatalysis”? Find out the answers on this week's episode as we chat with David MacMillan.
From food production to industrial manufacturing, catalysts are all around us and play an outsized role in our lives. It’s estimated that 90% of all commercially produced chemical products are reliant on catalysts at some point in the manufacturing process. Many of these reactions aren’t sustainable. When studying as a post-doc at Harvard, David MacMillan had a eureka moment that led to groundbreaking research for green chemistry with his innovative organocatalysis.
David also works to catalyze human connections and accelerate scientific advancement through his work at the Princeton Catalysis Initiative. His insights into catalyzing cross-field collaboration are sure to inspire!
About David MacMillan
David MacMillan is a Nobel laureate, the James S. McDonnell Distinguished University Professor of Chemistry at Princeton University, and director of the Princeton Catalysis Initiative, which accelerates research collaboration between scholars at Princeton and industry. He conceptualized and pioneered the field of asymmetric organocatalysis, and in 2021, he was named a co-recipient of the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for his work in the field.
Along with numerous awards and commendations, Professor MacMillan has been elected a Fellow of the Royal Society and a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.
Princeton Catalysis Initiative
PCI catalyzes collaborations between molecular, physical, biological, and social scientists who conduct high-impact research across disparate fields of study. By creating a new mechanism conducive to interdisciplinary research, PCI unites historically distinct areas to unleash new thinking, novel technologies, and ground-breaking applications.
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Hey everyone. Thanks for joining the show today. I'm Kelly from and I'm your host here at, from Lab to Launch. We hope you enjoy the conversations on the show as much as we do. We'd love a quick review of the show on Apple or Spotify. It takes just a minute and it helps get the message out there. And if you want to be on the show, fill out the application link to the show notes. We've had a lot of people reach out and it's been a pleasure to connect with you. Today I am really excited to welcome David MacMillan who is the James S McDonnell Distinguished University Professor of Chemistry at Princeton University and recent Nobel Prize winner. Professor MacMillan is an organic chemist who conceptualized and pioneered the field of asymmetric organocatalysis. I think I said that right. He launched and is now director of the Princeton Catalysis Initiative, which accelerates research collaborations between scholars at Princeton and industry. Along with numerous awards and commendations, professor MacMillan has been elected a fellow of the Royal Society and a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Most recently in 2021, Professor MacMillan was named a co-recipient of the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for his work in asymmetric organocatalysis I think you're really going to enjoy today's episode. Let's bring them in. Thank you so much, David, for making the time to speak with us today.David MacMillan:
Hi Kelly. It's my pleasure to get a chance to chat with you..Kelly Stanton:
We love hearing about people's backgrounds and you absolutely have a really interesting background. Can you take us through your journey to where you are today?David MacMillan:
So, you may be able to tell a little bit from my accent, I'm from Scotland. I was born and grew up just outside of Glasgow in a place called Bellshill. It's a very working class area. We were a working class family. My father was a steelworker. My mom was basically a maid. It's called a homehelp. And yeah, I grew up there, had a fantastic upbringing. It was truly wonderful. As I said, it was working class. We didn't have much money, but we had a huge amount of fun. It was just laughter every day. It was just one of those kinds of places. And Scotland's kind of like that way, you know, people love to have a laugh. Anyway. So I wasn't really intending on going to university. In fact, I didn't know anyone who went to university, but then my brother, who was older than me decided he wanted to go to what we call uni. And basically everyone thought he was crazy. My mom and dad thought he was kind of lazy cause he didn't want to go straight to a job. And ultimately he went and then on day one, after he graduated, when he got a job, he got a larger salary than what my father had as a steelworker. And so at that moment, my, my dad and my mom decided you have to go to university. Not only that you have to go and you have to do physics. And in fact, when I got to university, I didn't really like physics and ended up moving over into chemistry. And it was ever since then, I've always been an organic chemist.Kelly Stanton:
Nice. Yeah. I, wasn't a huge fan of physics in college either. Oh, that was a tough one. Tell us some more about conceptualizing and pioneering the field of asymmetric organocatalysis.David MacMillan:
Yeah. And it's great. You can actually pronounce it completely. Right? Most people really well.Kelly Stanton:
I have to admit that I've been practicing all morning because I wanted to say cat. Yes.David MacMillan:
Well, now you're very good. Actually. It was kind of funny. I was in a basically a dinner where the principal of Glasgow University said that, you know, basically he had the I'd made up, this word is symmetrical organo catalysis and said, maybe I shouldn't get the Nobel Prize for literature because it was such a hard world to actually say, which I thought was pretty funny. But yeah, no, organocatalysis. Basically when I was a post-doc at Harvard there was two areas of catalysis: there's enzymes, which are the catalysts, which are in your body and then in life. And there was metal catalysts and with metals they're often so reactive that you can't actually exist out in our natural environment. So you have to put them in this contraption called a glove box where you shove your arms in those big gloves. You've probably seen them in a nuclear facility type documentaries. And so I spent two years in this glove box and it was well, I learned an amazing amount in this lab called the Evans lab. After two years of this I decided, maybe it would be great if we can come up with catalysts that actually existed outside in the natural environment. And so the idea was maybe we could use small organic molecules to actually do this type of catalysis. And so that was the original idea. It'd be great to do that. Unfortunately I had no idea how to do that. And so when I started off my independent career at Berkeley we didn't really start working on it because I didn't have any good ideas on how you do this. And then. One of my graduate students first-year graduate students asked me a really simple question and I went to the board to sort of draw up the answer and had the quintessential Eureka moment of seeing, wait a minute, this could potentially allow us to do this thing called a organocatalysis. Maybe it would work. We tried it that afternoon and it worked and it was just incredible. And then thereafter, I think the fields took off like gangbusters and we're very fortunate to be a part of that. And there was just in the world sort of took over, drove the idea that lots of different applications, which was incredibly exciting to seeKelly Stanton:
That is exciting boy, but there were a few pints lifted that night. Huh? Well, so tell us about the Princeton Catalysis Initiative, where did the idea come from? Where do you see it going in the future?David MacMillan:
Yeah, the Princeton Catalysis Intiative. So the idea behind this was that when you walk in any university, you walk in any department, people tend to collaborate with the people right next to them, right next door. It's kind of like you took your bumper at your neighbors. You talk to them, you end up doing collaborations. So we felt it was kinda that's. That's great. And that's traditionally how people do research collaborations, however, Wouldn't it be great if people from all over the campus could sort of a bump into each other on a routine basis to sort of completely change the dynamic on how collaborations are created. Because If you think about it, the most modern or progressive fields, they really sort of happen at the boundaries between two other fields, where they kind of connect. That's where all the good stuff is. And so we were trying to come up with an idea of how do we catalyze for want of a better term, the way to get the faculty to talk to each other. So we came up with this idea called speed dating for scientists. Which was kind of funny. Cause when we first told the trustees at Princeton, they thought it was hilarious. Cause they thought it was sort of a romantic thing and we're like, "no, no, no, no, it's got nothing to do with actual dating. It's can you basically get 40 faculty members and an auditorium for a day? And you tell them, you have to stand up, you have to talk for five minutes and sit down again. And that way we're ensuring that all of these different people from all over the campus, get to hear each other, talk about what they're excited about. And then at the end of this, they can chat and then they can put in a one-page proposal. And if it's good, we'll sort of fund them. And so it's been an initiative that has also taken off like crazy. We wanted to raise enough money for over 10 years to maybe get to a hundred collaborations. We've now raised almost $70 million. And at the moment, I think we're on schedule to get to almost a thousand collaborations over 10 years. So, and there's already new fields that started growing out of there. So it's been a really different approach to getting ways for scientists to effectively colliding each other, but it's beginning to sort of pay off and it's been really exciting and we're now beginning to see other universities will begin to be thinking about harnessing or using the same model.Kelly Stanton:
Wow. And so it's, it's a human catalysis you've got going there.David MacMillan:
Exactly, exactly. That's exactly what trying to catalyze interactions. That's the whole thing.Kelly Stanton:
Oh, I love it. That's great. So then tell us about the Macmillan Group and what they're up to.David MacMillan:
Sure. So MacMillan Group is my research group. We're a big research group, we're about 42 members. Half of them are getting their PhD. Half of them are post-docs. And what they do is they're a really fantastic group of people to, to work with. And basically they're working on a whole range of different research efforts. Most of it at this moment centered around how do you use light to either devise new chemical reactions using light or new technologies to understand biology using light. So we basically walked in these two different areas, but all of it is anchored around using visible light to allow you to do completely new things, which will hopefully impact things like medicine, materials, and other areas that we have catalysis in chemistry.Kelly Stanton:
Yeah, we were chatting a little bit there early on about you know, the incidents back in pharmaceutical industry where you know, different types of molecules and being able to control those things in the manufacturing process. I too have spent a lot of time with my arms in, you see that a lot in the pharmaceutical manufacturing industry, but I don't think people realize the complexities of trying to control those kinds of manufacturing, you know, to get the same product coming out the other end every time. So it's good to see the innovation.David MacMillan:
Yeah. Yeah. And now we've been very fortunate. A lot of our technologies now, and the ones that we've developed a light are now being used by a medicinal chemist to make drugs. And that is one of the greatest possibilities being a researcher is not just discovering things or inventing things, but seeing adoption, you see adoption across areas where it's very noble. And if you think about it, there's nothing, there's not many more industries where there's more noble than actually making medicines for human beings. They're really noble people, people that work in pharma. And so for me to see them being adopted by those industries is really just tremendous. It's just a really fantastic, so it's a really fantastic thing.Kelly Stanton:
That is fantastic. One of the other thoughts I had as I was reading about some of the research and things you guys were working on too, is the idea of the supply chain and having come out the other side of, you know, the COVID pandemic, or maybe we're not all the way out yet, who knows. You know, it really exposed around the world everybody's vulnerabilities to supply chain and you know, one of the things I heard a lot was "why can't we just make those things here in the States?" Like, well you can, but then there's these environmental impacts, you know, that tie directly into like the metals you were talking about from the catalyst perspective and whatnot.David MacMillan:
Absolutely. So that's where, you know, I think catalysis at the moment is used in 90% of chemical reactions around the world and it's basically makes up for 35% of the world's GDP is based on catalysis so sustainablility is enormous. If you think about it and catalysis allows you to become more sustainable, but you also have to make the catalyst sustainable as well. So that is one of the sort of benefits that we had with the developing these smaller organic molecules. Because as you know, and people that listen, this show know organic molecules go right back into the life cycle are completely recyclable. So you don't have that problem, which is a nice feature, especially when it comes to waste or getting rid of basically biproducts of these manufacturing processes, it's really important that they become more and more sustainable.Kelly Stanton:
Yeah. The environmental impacts there are I, I'm not sure that can even be quantified at this point. Well, congratulations on your achievements. Such as being elected a fellow of the Royal Society, becoming a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and most recently, being a co-recipient of the Nobel Prize in Chemistry 2021 for the development of the asymmetric organocatalysis, those are incredibly outstanding achievements. How does that feel? Was this, something that was kind of on the radar for you from a, you know, career dreaming perspective?David MacMillan:
No, absolutely not. And it's kind of one of those things where people say, yeah, you sure did you really not know. I think no one, no one was more shocked than me when I won the Nobel prize. And probably no one was more ill-prepared than I was, because it was just, you wake up one morning and the world, your whole life has changed and it's changed permanently and you don't realize it until it happens. So the first two or three days was such a whirlwind. It was just extraordinary. And then you think it's going to die down, but at least so far, the way that people interact with me, the requests that you get, et cetera, et cetera, just continually enormous. I'm sort of hoping after the first year or so will die down a bit but I don't know if I've got the capacity to keep going at a rate of interaction with people. I mean, but at the same time, it's just, it's fantastic. It's an amazingly lovely thing. And you also get opportunities to do lots of things that you wouldn't have got to before. Some fun, some important in some respect to being a responsible citizen. So across the board has just been a really remarkable experience.Kelly Stanton:
That's so wonderful. Well, if you could go back and tell yourself something at the start of your career, what would that be?David MacMillan:
Yeah, that's a, that's a really interesting question. I've spent a little thinking about this and it's kind of weird, and this is probably not a very satisfying answer, but I think for me, I would probably not go back and tell myself anything because I feel like I've just been inordinately fortunate. And when I start, I think back to my life and all the different parts that had to sort of come into being to sort of get me to this point in my life where I'm having a fantastic time. I have an amazing family. I have an amazing group. I feel extraordinarily fortunate, incredibly lucky. So I feel like there were so many sort of forks in the road I could have taken. Definitely. They would, I mean, who knows where you would end up, but I certainly wouldn't be here. And so for me, I almost feel like I wouldn't do anything I would actually just say, yeah, just do it the way you did it. There was a lot of mistakes along the way, a lot of failures but failure, and it's a little obvious to say this, and cliche, but failures are great. Failures are what experience is made of, and I think you have to have all those failures to appreciate success. Maybe that's why I'm a Scotland soccer fan because we have so many failures that whenever we have success, it's amazing. But yeah, I think it's just as important as being successful as sort of hitting those bumps in the road.Kelly Stanton:
Definitely. I totally agree with that too. And it's funny cause people don't, you know, publish a lot about the failures, but I think, I think we should do that more. I think we should talk about those because they are, they really are opportunities for learning.David MacMillan:
Yeah. I mean, if you think about learning, I always think, but when you, when you give a good lecture, You've got to sort of introduce adversity into your lecture so that it's like watching a movie, good movie, a lecture's like a good movie, you so that the audience goes along for the ride and there's the ups and downs and adversity is a critical part. You have to understand the problems before you can understand the successes and that's what makes it exciting to have an appreciation for it. So, absolutely. I think adversity is one of the parts that really makes science so enjoyable. In a weird way because it's that sort of, when you get this achievement, when you get something to work, you get that chemical reaction. You've been trying to do it for for two years and then suddenly it works. That's an amazing, an amazing thing. And it's an amazing experience. So you have to have that tangent for it to really get the full appreciation of the science.Kelly Stanton:
Definitely. That's a, that's quite a story. Well, so where can people go to learn more, follow along and connect with you?David MacMillan:
Well, the easiest place is my group's website, which is if you just go to Princeton and type in my name and my group's website will come up with all the publications there as well as summaries of what we're doing. It's very technical. So just be warned. But absolutely you can sort of find out. What we're doing, what we're up to the research areas that we're involved with. And, and we do have some more cliff note versions of what we do there as well. If it's a little bit less technical for people, if they're really interested in the thing in it more.Kelly Stanton:
Thank you so much for your time today. Appreciate it. It's been a pleasure.David MacMillan:
Thank you, Kelly. That was great.