Good chemistry and a Nobel Prize

| Ton Fiselier

There is a major UT connection to Ben Feringa’s Nobelprize. Researchers Nathalie Katsonis and her husband Tibor Kudernac fell in love with science and with each other in Feringa’s lab in Groningen. ‘There was a lot of chemistry, that’s for sure’.

Katsonis and Kudernac are in high spirits, and have a good reason to be. Ben Feringa, their mentor, just won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for his research into molecular motors, a subject both Katsonis and Kudernac worked on with him. ‘The animation they showed at the end and the start of the presentation of the Nobel Prize, the molecular car, is something Tibor worked on directly’, Katsonis smiles proudly. ‘He was the first one to publish a paper on it.’ Kudernac grins in reply. ‘It’s pretty cool.’

Inspiration

It’s immediately clear that both researchers are deeply in love with their subject. ‘We are incredibly proud of Ben’, says Katsonis. ‘But we are also very happy for another reason. Ben instilled in us a love for bold and inspiring chemistry. Science that is driven by curiosity and takes on big challenges. The fact that Ben was awarded the Nobel Prize is also a recognition of the type of science we stand for.’

The couple met in 2004. Kudernac, who hails from Slovakia, was a PhD student with Feringa at the time and Katsonis was a postdoc at university in Paris, where she grew up. The two met at a conference in the city. ‘I had held a presentation, after which Ben approached me’, Katsonis tells with a continuous smile on her face. ‘He told me that he would like to work with me, but he said it in such a non-academic way that at first I didn’t realize who he was. I thought he was a postdoc too! He invited me to come to Groningen, and I ended up doing just that.’

Chemistry in more ways than one

Once in Groningen, things quickly fell into place. ‘It was a very special time. There was always a lovely ambiance, the team felt like one big family’, says Kudernac. He grins before adding, ‘We’re also not the only ‘Feringa couple’. There are at least three or four more, and some ‘Feringa babies’ too. There was a lot of chemistry, that’s for sure’. Katsonis laughs before adding, ‘We all felt like we were contributing to something important. We built some of our best friendships during that period.’

A culture of innovation

After stints in Belgium, France, and another short period in Groningen, the couple settled in Enschede where they are both active at the UT. Kudernac at the Molecular Nanofabrication group and Katsonis at the Biomolecular Nanotechnology group. Both researchers have a preference for the Dutch academic culture. ‘There is a lot of trust in, and support for young researchers in the Netherlands’, says Katsonis. ‘There is a culture of innovation. Excellence is encouraged and rewarded. And you don’t see that everywhere.’

The two researchers haven’t been in touch with their former mentor yet, but celebrated his Nobel Prize nonetheless. ‘We are very proud of Ben’, Katsonis smiles with genuine affection. ‘The fact that he won the Nobel Prize is immensely inspiring to both of us. It shows us that risk taking and curiosity are rewarded, and it pushes us to work even harder.’