Morten Meldal


Telephone interview, October 2022

“The complexity in organic chemistry is reflected in the chemistry of life… we are only scratching the surface of what we know in organic chemistry”

Telephone interview with Morten Meldal 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.

In the call recorded just after he had heard that he had been awarded the Nobel Prize, Morten Meldal describes how he views chemistry as a way of describing reality. It’s a field that should appeal to the young, he says, since “understanding how everything works is a very challenging but also a very rewarding experience.” And the possibilities are endless: “We are only scratching the beginning of our understanding of organic chemistry.”

Interview transcript

Adam Smith: Oh hello. My name is Adam Smith, calling from Well, many, many congratulations.

Morten Meldal: Thank you very much. Yes, I was not expecting it at all. It was really a surprise.

AS: So, of course, the first question is how did the news reach you?

MM: I was called this morning by committee, and they congratulated me. To win this prize together with Carolyn Bertozzi who I know from a very long time ago already, and also Barry Sharpless who I visited a couple of times, and I know both of those very well.

AS: Indeed, how nice. And your first action or reaction on hearing the news?

MM: Was just total surprise, and I… you know, I think that there’s a lot of research that goes by which are, is very exciting, and sometimes you just by serendipity have an orange falling into your turban and you have a very nice idea that can make a lot of people have an easier life in their research, or even in the, you know, in public. And that’s what happened. And that’s what happened to me. So this was a very serendipitous discovery that we did. By analysing our results we found that there was something strange going on, and this was very useful.

AS: Indeed, yes, I mean click chemistry is transforming the ease of doing reactions.

MM: Yes. Once you have completely new organic reactions, that can completely change the field. And that’s what happened in this case.

AS: Isn’t it marvellous, the way that despite all the work that goes into organic chemistry new organic reactions keep appearing?

MM: Yes, because the reality is much more complex than we as chemists are able to imagine, and new things come up all the time, and will forever. And I think there is no way that we will ever know everything. And the complexity of organic chemistry, also reflected in complexity of life, is very, very high. And we are only scratching, you know, the beginning of our understanding of organic chemistry, I think.

AS: How marvellous to explore such an unknown universe. Is that what drives you when you go into the lab each morning?

MM: Yes, actually it is. I’m working on something that I find is very exciting at the moment. Also new stuff, and I think that everyone who’s interested in chemistry and works will be awarded because it is such an interesting field. It is actually describing our reality, and that is why it’s so important with chemistry as well.

AS: That’s a very nice point, because people in general tend to view chemistry – who are not involved in it – a little bit negatively sometimes. They worry about the effect of chemicals.

MM: Yep.

AS: But to describe it as exploring our reality is… puts an entirely different slant on it.

MM: Yes, and it is actually because… I mean, there are two really fundamental sciences, and that is chemistry and physics. Because chemistry and physics, those describe everything that happens everywhere, whereas the other science fields – like biology and so on – is very, very interesting, and essential to our understanding of life, and our own lives as well. But it’s not a fundamental understanding of reality as it is with chemistry.

AS: And when you developed what the press release for this Prize describes as ‘the jewel in the crown of click chemistry’, the copper catalysed azide-alkyne cycloaddition, and you co-discovered that with Barry Sharpless, but working independently, did you realise that this was an absolutely ground-breaking discovery?

MM: Yes, because we did some reactions which were not supposed to be able to happen, and so for example we took very reactive acid chlorides and reacted then those which had azides in them, reacted those with alkynes, without touching the acid chlorides which is a very reactive functionality. So we immediately saw that this was completely orthogonal to other chemistries and would have a huge potential.

AS: And one of the things that makes click chemistry so special is that it can happen while other reactive groups are around but they’re just unaffected by this.

MM: Yes, and I should in that regard also the PhD student Christian Tornøe who worked on this project and was very much involved in the discovery as well.

AS: Thank you. What would you say to young people contemplating chemistry as a career?

MM: I would say it’s… it’s a very interesting field because it has a lot of existentialism in it, so understanding how everything works is a very challenging but also a very rewarding experience.

AS: Very nice. Well, let’s hope this Prize encourages yet more people to enter the field. It’s very encouraging for everybody that it’s a Prize that unites male and female laurates.

MM: Yes, yes, yes, that’s very nice. I know Carolyn for a very long time and she is a fantastic researcher.

AS: What would you say makes her special as a researcher?

MM: She has such a broad knowledge of both chemistry and biology, and knows how to utilise her chemical knowledge in a very exquisite way in understanding biology.

AS: That fundamental base of understanding is deeply important isn’t it.

MM: Yeah.

AS: It’s been a huge pleasure speaking to you, thank you very much, and congratulations.

MM: Thank you very much. Adam, I will talk with you later.

AS: Thank you, bye bye.

MM: Bye.

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MLA style: Morten Meldal – Interview. Nobel Prize Outreach AB 2022. Sat. 3 Dec 2022. <>

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