Interview, December 2022
“If you learned something from it, it’s not a failure”
If you had the chance to meet a Nobel Prize laureate, what would you ask? Karolinska Institutet student Sofia Iskrak met 2022 chemistry laureate Carolyn Bertozzi on 12 December 2022 to ask her pressing questions, including what Bertozzi was like as a student, her favourite science-themed reads, and her advice for students who are thinking of pursuing science. Bertozzi also shared her best advice for overcoming failures in life and in the lab: “If you learned something from it, it’s not a failure”.
Nobel Minds 2022
The 2022 Nobel Prize laureates in the fields of physics, chemistry, physiology or medicine and economic sciences met at the Bernadotte Library at the Royal Palace in Stockholm on 9 December 2022. They discussed their discoveries and achievements, and how these might find a practical application. The discussion was hosted by the BBC’s Zeinab Badawi.
Telephone interview, October 2022
“When the world is in trouble, chemistry comes to the rescue”
Telephone interview with Carolyn Bertozzi following the announcement of the 2022 Nobel Prize in Chemistry on 5 October 2022. The interviewer is Adam Smith, Chief Scientific Officer of Nobel Prize Outreach.
This call, recorded immediately after the public announcement of her Nobel Prize, caught her just before the world started descending on her home in California. As the eighth female Nobel Prize laureate in chemistry, she says “I can’t help but think about all the women that came before me that didn’t have the opportunity to be recognised.” But her view of the future is bright: “I’m very optimistic about how science, and the culture of science, is trending.”
Carolyn Bertozzi: This is Carolyn.
Adam Smith: Oh hello. This is Adam Smith, calling from Nobelprize.org.
CB: Hello, how are you doing?
AS: I’m doing fine.
CB: I was told you would call, which is great because my phone has been like ringing, ringing, ringing, ringing with I think Swedish, you know, media people.
AS: I think the world’s media will be on to that phone pretty soon.
CB: I guess so, yeah.
AS: How’s the morning been so far?
CB: I mean, it’s insane, you know. I was probably asleep for not even two hours, and all of a sudden, you know, the phone is jarring me awake, and I’m thinking ‘are you kidding me?’.
AS: And are you still in relative isolation, or has the house been bombarded by the press already?
CB: Nope, it’s all quiet here. Dark and quiet and, you know, hopefully they don’t find me too soon.
AS: That would be good. Maybe you should hide because the next few days is going to be…
AS: It’s… it’s exciting company to be in as well, I mean…
AS: How do you feel about having the prize?
CB: I’m still I think in shock, but it’s really exciting for me to kind of be there, on the same list as Barry Sharpless and Morten Meldal. The two of them are among my chemistry heroes. Barry Sharpless’s work has been kind of mesmerising me since I was a graduate student, and I heard him speak at Berkeley back in… somewhere in the late 1980s or early ‘90s, and Morten Meldal’s work I studied while I was in graduate school because he did a lot of work on glycopeptide synthesis, before his epic publication of click chemistry. So these are people that I’ve been learning from for many years. Decades even. And to be among them is just a huge honour for me.
AS: You’re such a serially inventive person. You know, introducing biorthogonal chemistry in 2003, and you’ve started many companies, and you seem to have such energy for new directions. What drives you through all this?
CB: Well, I love organic chemistry, I’m fascinated by biology. Like all of us, you know, I’ve had family members and close friends who’ve suffered from ailments that were so untreatable. It was always my hope that as a scientist I could make some contributions that might benefit human health, either in the near term or the long term, or not even necessarily in my lifetime, but that was always my goal. And I like teaching, and working with people who share my passion, and who I can help with the wisdom of my age, I guess.
AS: And what about chemistry? It gets a bad press sometimes.
CB: It ought not to. Chemistry is the central science, as we call it. And it’s such an exciting area of science for people who want to have an impact in biology and medicine and materials and climate and sustainability, right? Chemistry is so central to all of it. Really, when the world is in trouble, chemistry comes to the rescue, right. And covid-19 is a great example of that. So I think maybe, maybe I can contribute to making our public image more exciting and positive.
AS: It’s a wonderful image of chemistry the superhero coming to the rescue. I like that.
CB: Yes, that’s right.
AS: Of course people will focus on the fact that you’re only the eighth woman to have been awarded the chemistry prize. How does that, sort of, sit with you?
CB: Well, that definitely adds a layer of gravity to the occasion. You know, I’ve been in environments where a woman wins a prize and she’s the first woman to win a prize, or there’s very few, and I can’t help but think about all the women who came before me, who did spectacularly important work, every bit as important as anything I’ve done, but didn’t have the opportunity to be recognised. So I think it’s… I love that the numbers tick up. I wish that they ticked up more broadly. I think the fact that they are ticking up is very positive. And I know some of the other women who’ve been recognised with Nobel Prizes, and again to sort of be among company like that is just incredibly humbling. And I’m sure there’ll be many more in the future. I mean, there’s so many amazing women scientists. And I think we’ll see them coming up more and more.
AS: But progress is a bit slow. I mean, you yourself have found yourself, as you already mentioned, in all male environments. Have you any advice for those who want to, for want of a better phrase, break through?
CB: Well, I’m very optimistic about how science and the culture of science is trending. Hold on, someone has just come to my front door. Someone is ringing the doorbell. And… So I think things are looking so much better, and there are so many visible women now. I think there’s just every reason to be optimistic. Hi, are you the press people?
CB: Come in. I’m on the phone with one of the gentlemen from the Nobel Foundation here. Come on in, my place is your place, make yourself comfortable. Sorry, I’ve got the Stanford Press here.
AS: I’m sure, and I think I was lucky to catch you before they arrived.
CB: The phone is ringing off the hook. Just help yourself to whatever. Grab a soda from the fridge if you’re thirsty. This is the middle of the night for you too, so I understand. Okay. So Adam, is there anything to add? Action items here? Because I’m probably not going to remember anything you say, so…
AS: You can relax, and just enjoy the, the show that’s going to unfold… is going to unfold in front of you.
CB: It’s unfolding I know, my emails are, the box is already filled up, so…
AS: But it’s fun actually, listening to the press people arrive it’s quite nice to get an insight into what happens in the middle of the night in California. Enjoy your amazing day to unfold.
CB: Thank you so much, alright.
AS: Nice to talk to you.
CB: Talk to you soon.
AS: Bye now.
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Nobel Prizes and laureates
See them all presented here.