Morten Meldal

Podcast

Nobel Prize Conversations

“Whatever honour you get, the most interesting is still what goes on in the fume hood”

“My daughter was sitting on the second or third row and I could see that she was crying. And tears actually are contagious. So I was almost crying when I had to go up and receive the prize because of that.” – This is how Morten Meldal recalled the moment he crossed the stage in Stockholm to receive his Nobel Prize medal.

In this conversation, Morten Meldal, also speaks about his interests outside science, such as painting, books, music, and even building his own guitars.

The host of this podcast is nobelprize.org’s Adam Smith, joined by Clare Brilliant. This podcast was released on 27 April, 2023.

Below you find a transcript of the podcast interview. The transcript was created using speech recognition software. While it has been reviewed by human transcribers, it may contain errors. 

Morten Meldal after receiving his Nobel Prize
Chemistry laureate Morten Meldal after receiving his Nobel Prize from H.M. King Carl XVI Gustaf of Sweden at Konserthuset Stockholm on 10 December 2022. © Nobel Prize Outreach. Photo: Nanaka Adachi

Morten Meldal: “Not all students come to school with equal ability to make abstractions or see images and so on, but if we are able to show this imaginary world — make cartoons of our chemistry world – I think we could really reach far with that.”

Adam Smith: Not everybody gets on with chemistry. But talking to the chemist Morten Meldal, you have to wonder why that is.  The way he describes chemistry is as full of images, abstractions, possibilities. He connects the way he thinks about chemistry with the way he thinks about painting on canvas or playing music. And you can see that it’s all part of the same creative desire.  He talks about the concept of pleasurable learning, a lovely phrase which I think for most people is a long way from what their experience of learning chemistry at school was. But he sees that it should be enjoyable and fun and enticing. And speaking to him, I can really see how that could be.  With the hope that you’ll enjoy this conversation as much as I did, let’s listen to Morten Meldal.

MUSIC

Clare Brilliant: This is Nobel Prize Conversations. Our guest is Morten Meldal, the 2022 chemistry laureate. He was awarded the prize for his ground-breaking achievements in click chemistry – the art of snapping together chemical building blocks in quick and efficient ways. He shared the prize with Carolyn Bertozzi and Barry Sharpless.

Your host is Adam Smith, Chief Scientific Officer at Nobel Prize Outreach. This podcast was produced in cooperation with Fundación Ramón Areces.

Morten Meldal is professor of chemistry at University of Copenhagen. In this conversation you’ll hear him talk about the importance of honesty, going from painter to chemist – and the science of turning an oakwood plank into an electric guitar.

But first, he looks back on a memorable week in December.

Smith: How have these months been since the announcement?

Meldal: It’s been fantastic. The whole experience of Stockholm was amazing. It was like a mixture between the Wizard of Oz and Alice in Wonderland. The Swedish are very, very good at making those kind of statements as the Nobel Prize really is. I was very happy to go there with my family.

Smith: Let me take you back to one moment from Nobel Week in Stockholm.

CLIP: This is a truly great achievement for the benefit of humankind. On behalf of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, I wish to convey to you our warmest congratulations. May I now ask you to step forward and receive your Nobel Prizes from the hands of His Majesty the King.

Meldal: That was truly a wonderful moment.

Smith: What was going through your head as you were there alone on this day? 

Meldal: Several things that how big this really is. I remember thinking that and then my daughter was sitting on the second row or third row and I could see she was crying and tears actually are contagious. I was almost crying when I had to go up and receive the prize because of that.

Smith: It’s a strange moment in a way because you’re surrounded by people and everybody

else is talking, but you, the laureates, are silent on stage during all of that. 

Meldal: Yes. 

Smith: You have time to reflect and it may be in fact one of the few quiet moments for you during Nobel Week.

Meldal: Yes. I really like the fact that you can discuss and have a dialogue with people in

such situations. I truly enjoyed our meeting with the Royal Family of Sweden where we actually could talk like laymen with the Royals. That was really nice. I also really liked the Nobel Minds discussions. I think that was a unique moment. 

Smith: Indeed, bringing all these disciplines together and seeing what bubbles up from the mix of ideas.

Brilliant: Before their discussion, Adam asked Morten Meldal to name a book that influenced him, both as a scientist and as a person. Morten selected two books. The first was the ´The limits to growth´, where a team of scientists used computer simulations to show how our over-consumption of natural resources would impact humanity and the planet. With translations in 30 languages and 30 million copies sold, many of the book’s predictions have turned out to be correct.

Meldal: It made a huge difference to me because it made it possible for me to distinguish between what the politicians are deciding in order to satisfy their next election and what they do to actually make a real difference in the progress of human beings in the society. 

Smith: It was published in 1972 and was a simulation of what would happen if resource availability continued in linear –

Meldal: You read it? 

Smith: Yes. You gave me my homework. I’m a good student sometimes. When the task is right and this was right. The simulation was of linearly increasing resource availability and exponentially increasing problems like population growth, pollution, industrialization, consumption. Some people ridiculed it at the time. When did you encounter it?

Meldal: It must have been in the late 70s or start of the 80s, something like that. I don’t remember exactly when it was, but I was very young at the time.

Smith: It was a forerunner, if you like, of the now very loudly spoken drive for sustainability.

Meldal: Exactly. It put everything in perspective already then. It was incomprehensible for me and many other young people at the time why the politicians didn’t take the simulation seriously because it actually would have the effects that we see today. I don’t think anybody can doubt that this is a really, really serious situation, which we just started on. We are not really seeing the actual consequences yet. That made a big difference to me.

Smith: How did it influence you?

Meldal: In my decisions to actually choose, including choosing to study chemistry, because I thought that chemistry would be a way to solve some of the challenges. I didn’t know what to do with the chemistry at the time, but since a lot of it had to do with the development of energy sectors and chemical productions and medicinal chemistry around the world, I thought that studying that would be the only way to be able to have an influence on that field.

Smith: It seems an enlightened view. Of course, you and all of the other people who are keen on chemistry know that chemistry can make a difference for good. There is, unfortunately, a general perception among the public that chemistry is a producer of bad things.

Meldal: There are two levels of chemistry. There is chemistry as an education. Chemistry as an education is often associated with the local production environment in the region and so on. Typically engineering and stuff like that within chemistry. Then there is chemistry as a fundamental science and as a way to actually see everything, the existence. Chemistry is involved in every single interaction between molecules that lead to organisms. It’s like the fundamental science underlying biology, underlying the whole nano sector where you have nanoscopic entities emerging like cell membranes and stuff like that. It underlies our food production, it underlies our consumer industry. Every single aspect of our life is sort of lined with chemistry. I think there is a lot of existential aspects to the study of chemistry. Understanding where we are from and what we are going to be if we don’t do this and that. 

Smith: It’s a beautiful way to frame it. I suppose you already had the role of being a spokesperson for chemistry. But now with the Nobel Prize conferred, you’re very much in the limelight for speaking up for chemistry. 

Meldal: That’s what I also used to say that the Nobel Prize makes a really big difference because it’s not only honouring what was in the past, it’s also setting all the directions for the future. If you take this opportunity, you get a really strong voice to talk about things. One of the things that I would really like if we could make chemistry part of the general education and have pleasure-driven teaching already from the first grades in chemistry, visualizations and so on. 

Smith: Pleasure-driven teaching. It’s a lovely phrase. Tell me more about that.

Meldal: Pleasure-driven means that it should be very easy to consume for the students. Not all students come to school with equal ability to make abstractions or see images and so on. But if we make the images for them, if we are able to show this imaginary world as if it was something they could really see. To make cartoons of our chemistry world in order to make them understand this and not invoke any of all these calculations that you often have in chemistry at any early point but just let them be free and let them watch instead of let them use in the beginning. I think we could really reach far with that.

Smith: It’s a lovely point because chemists draw and children draw. There should be a lovely connection there.

Meldal: Yes, exactly. I think with today’s capacity of doing animations and doing chemical calculations and our fundamental understanding on how electrons are moving around and how they react with other molecules and so on. All of that can be boiled down in an animation studio to something that is really useful for the teaching.

Smith: When you think of chemistry in the way you framed it, of where we came from and what we will become, how could anybody not be interested in that?

Meldal: Exactly, that’s my point. 

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Smith: What have you learned about yourself during all of this then?

Meldal: What I’ve learned is that whatever honour you get, the most interesting thing is still what goes on in the fume hood. I’m really enjoying my time with the students, trying to solve some problems. You have to challenge the students and yourself and when you do that you often hit your head on a brick wall. Then you have to get together and solve that problem. I love that process where everybody is coming with input and we try to make a solution to those problems. That’s very important for me. That’s what I found about myself. I really like that. Teaching and the research environment is quite a unique thing. It’s the best working space you can have, in my opinion. So be careful with that. Of course, there’s a lot of travels now. There’s a lot of other things that are part of my agenda. But I will definitely be focused on trying to maintain that and also writing articles.

Smith: When I asked you about books, you offered two. You offered ´The Limits to Growth´. You also offered ´The Lord of the Rings´.

Meldal: Yes. 

CLIP reading an extract from the book ´The Lord of the Rings´:

Three Rings for the Elven-kings under the sky,

Seven for the Dwarf-lords in their halls of stone,

Nine for Mortal Men doomed to die,

One for the Dark Lord on his dark throne

In the Land of Mordor where the shadows lie.

One Ring to rule them all, One Ring to find them,

One Ring to bring them all, and in the darkness bind them,

In the Land of Mordor where the shadows lie.

Smith: How has ´The Lord of the Rings´ influenced you? 

Meldal: I read ´The Lord of the Rings´ in high school, long before any of the movies were ever made. I actually played sick during this period because it was so exciting to read this book. I love the level of the language, which is amazing. I read it in English, of course, and the original language of Tolkien is really nice. I think it’s very rich and you have this sensation that it’s almost like it was a Shakespeare novel. His world is so complete and it’s so good in distinguishing good from evil and all the aspects of turning evil from being good. I think that was really, at the time, something that resonated with my identity, the way that I was looking at the world and myself. That was a very, very important book for me. Before you had the movies, I built this world. When Peter Jackson recorded this movie, it was amazing to see how much his perception was exactly the same as I had had years before this, when I read it, because everything was just like I had imagined in the movie.

Smith: Did you visualize the characters when you read? 

Meldal: Yes, yes. I’ve always been good at visualization. I think that’s my force, actually.

Smith: That’s very interesting that the personifications of these characters you’d read about were right. Aragorn was Aragorn and Legolas was Legolas. Amazing. Tolkien’s scholarship was I suppose essential to the creation of that world that was so well thought through, even differences in language between the different places and things. Marvelous. You read it in that single fat edition of all three books together.

Meldal: Exactly. Beautiful illustrations.

Smith: It’s a lovely thought of you skiving from school and reading that. It might be a difficult question, but how much does fictionalization, imagination come into the work you do?

Meldal: It’s a lot actually. I have a very good friend who is a painter. He was with us in Stockholm actually. We have always shared a lot of common ways of seeing things and experience the world in much the same way. We have been a mutual inspiration all of our lives.

Smith: You do many things. One of the things you do is combinatorial chemistry, where you create vast libraries of different compounds, things that have never been made before. You are just reaching out into the vast untapped regions of chemical space, all the different things that could potentially be made. When one talks about it, there seems a very strong visual image there. Is that how you think about it?

Meldal: I just have to see it a couple of times and then it becomes part of my inside world as an image of how electrons are and what residues are where and so on. Then I look at the library and I get the opposite component from the library and what that should look like and so on. Yes, I have a lot of ideas of how to actually structure the libraries towards a particular target because of this visualization.

Smith: Are these skills that can be taught to everybody or does it require some innate ability to visualise?

Meldal: I think you train this just as much as this part of your way of thinking. I think it actually starts very early on, this training. It’s not something that starts with chemistry in seventh grade, something that starts when you’re young. For some reason, you have an exciting experience where you need visualization and it just triggers something in your brain and you build it then from many years and become good at it. It’s very much an environmental thing. I think as our education system also shows you can be educated to do almost anything.

Smith: Indeed. How did your painting career go?

Meldal: When I was doing my engineering studies, I was painting at night and then I was very tired during the day. I had to stop that. I haven’t taken it up again since then. My most wonderful experience of that is I just went to the forest. I found a beautiful spot and I just draw, my eyes were looking at the scenery. The painting was following that without any sort of deeper thoughts, just following what you saw exactly. That was a really nice experience. In 20 minutes, painting wet and wet, I got the entire sensation of that beautiful place. That was good. That was very good.

Smith: You seem to have a very thoughtful approach to life, if I may say so. Where did that come from?

Meldal: I guess that my parents have had a great deal to do with that. First of all, when I was young, they always shipped me off to my grandparents’ farm in Bornholm. This is a beautiful place in the Baltic Sea. They had a big farm there with meadows and forests and beaches. You get a lot of thoughts when you are playing around like that, constructing your huts in the forest or how everything works together and so on. That, I think, made a big difference to me.

Smith: It speaks to the value of just allowing people to discover the world for themselves and live it free time. 

Meldal: Yes. 

Smith: Skipping school to read books, just –

Meldal: Pleasureful learning. I think that’s really important because I don’t think you can learn by force, external force. Of course, you can force yourself to learn and that’s because you want to learn and that’s still pleasurable. But if you are asked to learn against your will, that’s not going to happen. Nothing’s coming in.

Smith: I suppose where all this is going is that I’m trying to see if we can get some insights into how you became the sort of person who, when the CuAAC reaction popped up in your lab, the first click chemistry reaction, you were in the right frame of mind to discover it, if you see what I mean. You had the curiosity, you had the insight, you had the background that allowed you to say, well, there’s something that we need to pay attention to and to follow it through. Because that is, I suppose, one extraordinarily important art of discovery. 

Meldal: I think that is probably one of the most important arts of discovery because if you look at it, many of the big disruptive discoveries that were made, were made in this way. I think that a lot of, if you go back, I wonder how many of the Nobel Prizes would actually, in chemistry, would actually be that kind of  ”wow” experience for the researcher.

Smith: Can you spot in the young people that come through the lab, the sort of minds that are likely to be tuned to spotting new things?

Meldal: Yes, of course. I can see – it’s a sensation. You can sense that they have this kind of mixture of curiosity, ability to imagine some stuff, ability to think in abstract terms and so on. All of these things come together in a special way when you have this kind of person. It’s not always the ones that are best organised.

Smith: The reaction was, of course, discovered also and separately by Barry Sharpless. 

Meldal: Yes.

Smith: Barry is a kind of maverick risk taker. Would you say that you and Barry are similar or do you have very different approaches to chemistry?

Meldal: I think we have the same kind of association disorder, you might say, which means that you make connections in your mind that are not coming naturally from your experience, but it just grows like that. You have new ideas. It’s a sort of a combination of previous things. But at the same time, at an abstract level, you make new bridges that were not there before. I think that’s what we are both doing. 

Smith: That seems a perfect segway into another subject, which is music, which is also important to you.  

Meldal: Yes.

Smith: You play in a band, right?

Meldal: Yes, I have my guitars. 

Smith: These, which I have the privilege to be shown now, but our listeners will only have to imagine them. They’re very beautiful, rather different looking, rather futuristic looking guitars. How would you describe the guitars? These guitars that you yourself have built?

Meldal: If you look at them, they sort of have a design where most of the material was removed as much as you can, because this is made of quite heavy wood, it’s oak wood. I removed as much as I possibly can in order to make a good design.

Smith: They’re very beautiful. They’re very sculptural.

Meldal: Yes. So that’s a new kind of guitar design. 

Smith: Now, okay, before we get into the design, let’s listen to your son-in-law, Kevin Shields, and your daughter, Anna, talking about these guitars.

Meldal: Okay. 

CLIP on Meldal’s guitars:

Kevin Shields: We’ve had three or four, but they’re super high level, and they’re super interesting looking. 

Jessica Gerdin (reporter): Yeah, have you played them? 

Shields: Yes. And they’re kind of like, if you imagine a great scientist designing a guitar, how perfectly accurate it is, and it’s like super high level. You couldn’t buy something commercially that easily.

Gerdin: Have you given him any effect pedals? Because I know that’s an obsession. 

Shields: Yeah, yeah, yeah. I mean, I’ve always given him guitars and effects. He loves my Jazzmaster. He plays a certain Jazzmaster he loves when he’s over, and he builds pedals as well. She builds pedals. He builds pedals. 

Anna Davolio: Yeah, my dad and I build pedals together as well. We make from scratch. We make this, guitar pedals. 

Gerdin: This is lovely. 

Shields: I don’t even have to give him any. He’s building them.

Smith: So that excerpt from the hubbub during Nobel Week, Kevin Shields of My Bloody Valentine and your daughter, Anna Davolio, speaking about making pedals. What kind of guitar does a great scientist design?

Meldal: Yes, of course, you do a lot of calculations and exactly where you want your bands now, the distance between the bridge and the end of the guitar and so on. All of that is calculated using a scientific approach. Then you make it and you make sure that you have possibility for adjustment because as in everything else in nature, it doesn’t behave like the theory. There’s a lot of other factors like the thickness of the strings and the way they bend down towards the board and so on that plays a role. You make it as good as you can in calculation. You make sure you are accurate in your carvings and your carpentry. Then you make sure that you have adjustment possibilities that can accumulated whatever sort of little things that are not ideal.

Smith: Did you make them because you wanted a sound that you couldn’t get from something you bought or did you make them for fun? 

Meldal: No, no, I made them for fun. I made them because when I was young, I helped a forester. Actually, he has a castle in Denmark. I helped him put his forest on to an Excel sheet so that he would be able to see where he needed to go and what he needed to do in his forest. As a thank you, an appreciation, he gave me an oak tree which was sliced in five, six centimeter planks that I could use for this.

Smith: That’s a lovely gift.

Meldal: I have had them in my shed and I just used them.

Smith: That’s what they told you they were. I remember the furniture maker James Krenov

used to stand by his wood for hours at a time waiting for the wood to tell him what it wanted to be. Was that your relationship with your oak boards?

Meldal: I make these drawings on computer, right? I have a technical drawing program and I put it in the computer so everything is accurate. I make the print out and then I glue it together from A4 paper and put it on the oak tree in different ways to see where it fits the best and so on. A similar process.

Smith: What sort of music do you play? 

Meldal: I make my own, first of all. I make songs, I like to make songs, ballads kind of songs. I also play in a rock band where we play anything from back to old Elvis all the way up to Maroon 5 and stuff like that. All sorts of blues or reggae or whatever kind of music. 

Smith: Is there one artist you particularly adore?

Meldal: I very much like Bob Marley. He was a very unique musician. I also like Weather Report. There’s a group called Entrance. I love African music like Salif Khaita or Barbara Kanaan. There are many musicians in the world that are essentially unknown in these countries up here but are very good. 

Smith: Indeed. What is it about Bob Marley that you particularly like?

Meldal: His honesty with life. He was more or less seen as an outcast in the beginning, right? He built his life on trying to be honest with all the things that happened around him which was not always very nice from the people who have the money.

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Smith: We began talking about music because of associations one makes between different spheres. Do you think that’s how you think about music? That it’s bringing things together from different places?

Meldal: Yes, of course. There’s a lot of atmosphere in music. The music is usually used to describe some sort of situation in, for example, in connection with a text or even without a text. I remember Pink Floyd has a piece of music where you start with seagulls making noise and drops of water and so on. That’s a whole piece of music that paints a painting with sound. I think that’s a very nice way to see music actually. That it is a picture with sound.

Smith: You’re still a painter. A painter in science, a painter with chemistry, a painter with music.

Meldal: Yes, you can say that.

Brilliant: Morten Meldal was awarded the Nobel Prize for developing the CuAAC click reaction. What is ‘click chemistry’, Adam?

Smith: Click chemistry is a really easy way of joining molecules together. Traditionally, it’s quite hard to get bonds to form between molecules in a selective way. Lots of groups on molecules want to react with each other and form bonds. But the problem is normally that you have all these different groups, all of which can do different things. Making them react in exactly the way you want is hard. In click chemistry, you have two groups, one on one molecule, one on another, which very selectively want to join together and make a bond, leaving everything else untouched.

Brilliant: That sounds really clever. How did Meldal and colleagues come up with the idea?

Smith: They found that these two groups, one is an azide, which is three nitrogens joined together, and one is an alkyne, which is two carbons joined by three bonds. These two groups would, under very, very mild conditions in water, together with a copper catalyst at room temperature, they would bond together and form a cyclic molecule, a thing that looks a bit like a ring, and that, as I say, almost magically, this happens without interfering with what else is going on around. This contrasts so starkly with what organic chemistry is often like. If you remember back to doing experiments at school, you tended to have to boil things up and you used all sorts of solvents that smelled terrible. Click chemistry dispenses with that. It just happens in nice, gentle conditions. It makes it much greener. I suppose it’s a more sustainable reaction, but it’s also a way of making things happen in a very predictable way. That means your yields can be higher. You can just spot opportunities to join things together.

Brilliant: What are the applications of click chemistry? You can build all sorts of molecules that formerly just seemed to be too complicated to make because you just couldn’t see how to selectively stick two things together. Given that, sort of the world’s your oyster, really, you can use it in the lab just to make more interesting chemicals. But you can also use it in biology to tag large molecules, see where they go in the body, or to create potentially therapeutics. You can target the active site of enzymes, for instance, inhibit them or turn them on more. That may be very important in treating disease in the future. There’s innumerable things you can do with it. Let’s listen to one of the ways that Morten Meldal himself is using the click chemistry he discovered.

Meldal: If we can make by this process an enzyme, in particular if we can make an enzyme with a target that is important, it could be anything from Alzheimer peptides to a pathogen protein that you don’t want. There are so many areas where you can think of using an enzyme instead of a drug in medicine. An enzyme has the advantage that the enzyme would be capable of neutralizing thousands of molecules where if you have the conventional drugs where you are generally using inhibition kind of processes or activation kind of processes, you need a molecule for the activation or the inhibition and that means that you need excess compared to the interactions you want to interrupt.

Smith: Do you see this coming to fruition in the foreseeable future? 

Meldal: No. But I see it as being very exciting and something that could make a fundamental difference to what we do. That’s why we do it. I’ve never been thinking about having a tangible result immediately because that’s actually removing a lot of the challenge from what you’re doing because you have to do it in a very practically and applicable way. Where I think most of the bigger discoveries, they are actually where you don’t expect things to happen and are also in the challenging areas where it’s difficult to do what you’re doing at the moment. It might become easy later on like with click chemistry but it’s actually difficult to do what we tried to do before the click reaction was very difficult. With the click reaction it became easy, right?

Smith: Yes.  

Meldal: I never had a program that was successful from the beginning. It’s always full of problems that have to be solved and it’s your persistence that really makes it come true. 

Smith: Having a record of some of that thought process when you write is a very valuable thing to contribute as well.

Meldal: Yes, also you have to be honest when you talk about your work. You have to be very honest as a scientist and I think that’s maybe something that is forgotten once in a while, how honest you actually need to be. Particularly because a lot of other people’s destiny and what they invest their time in will be depending on what you have done and how you described it.

Smith: That’s a fascinating point. It must be true that it’s hard to tell things exactly as they are given as you say, your young people in the lab are clamoring for papers that will take them to the next stage of their career and your funders want to see success. A lot of conflicting demands on you. 

Meldal: Yes, but the most important one is being honest about your results. Having a certain level of humility towards your own capacity and ability to do the right thing every time.

Morten Meldal in the laboratory
Morten Meldal at the University of Copenhagen laboratory. Photo: University of Copenhagen

MUSIC

Smith: What I would like to know and what I suppose everybody needs to find out is how to combine these things we’ve been talking about. That everybody talks about how to hold on to your curiosity, but it’s how to have, it’s not just that. It’s about how to not get too set in your ways that you’re, you close your mind to different avenues, to new approaches. As you say, remain honest, because so often the story can take over and you become invested in selling yourself as the expert in this or that technology and stuff. Then that can let you down.

Meldal: I think a lot of it has to do with you being comfortable to not being in your comfortable zone, to be able to deal with a situation where you are not comfortable at all, including in research where you might have to enter into unknown space: electronics or physics or particular kind of inorganic chemistry you don’t know anything about. You can actually approach that because it’s part of the solution to your particular problem. It’s also stepping out of your comfort zone to actually admit that it didn’t work like you expected it to. It’s also out of your comfort zone to let other people actually take the honour for their work when they actually did it and so on. That’s very important issues, particularly for research.

Smith: How do you create the environment or do you actively curate the environment that allows people to be comfortable? Because it is competitive research. 

Meldal: Research is competitive and I actually have four people that work in cohort on the same kind of project. They have different aspects of the same kind of project. Of course there’s a little bit of competition to that, but there’s much more collaboration actually. If you can create a collaborative atmosphere, you can relax that sensation of the egos from the very beginning, get them to understand each other as part of a greater process. It’s really important.

Smith: I suppose fundamentally it comes down to a deep and abiding interest in the problem, an interest which puts everything else aside. Is that learnt or does that have to come from within? Can you learn to be interested?

Meldal: I was always spurred by my parents to have interest in everything around. My mother actually used frogs and dried fish in her paintings and they were sort of smelly because she glued them on and they were swimming around in the ocean or whatever. She collected everything and I think you learn a lot about interest in everything from that. I’m very grateful to my parents for that. 

Smith: Your mother was a painter? 

Meldal: Yes, she was a painter. She spent the first half of her life as a teacher and then she started painting and became a painter.

Smith: What did your father do? 

Meldal: He started out in the business of Kosan gas, these yellow gas cylinders that we have in Denmark. He soon became an employee in Philips and then he was director in Philips for many years. 

Sith: You had arts and business mixed.

Meldal: Yes, my father was quite strict and my mother was quite emotional.

Smith: Which sort of parent are you? Strict or emotional? 

Meldal: Probably a mix of both, but I allow a lot because as long as there’s no danger, I think that’s the best thing to do for my children.

Smith: Yes. It’s been a delight. Thank you very much. 

Meldal: It’s been very good talking to you.

MUSIC

Brilliant: You just heard Nobel Prize Conversations. If you’d like to learn more about Morten Meldal, you can go to nobelprize.org, where you’ll find a wealth of information about the prizes and the people behind the discoveries.

Nobel Prize Conversations is a podcast series with Adam Smith, a co-production of Filt and Nobel Prize Outreach. The producer for this episode was Karin Svensson. The editorial team also includes Andrew Hart, Olivia Lundqvist, and me, Clare Brilliant. Kevin Shields and Anna Davolio Meldal were interviewed by Jessica Gerdin. Music by Epidemic Sound.

If you’re looking for more listening, check out our earlier conversation with David MacMillan, another Nobel Prize laureate with the ability to get practically anybody interested in chemistry. You can find previous seasons and conversations on Acast, or wherever you listen to podcasts. 

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Nobel Prize Conversations is produced in cooperation with Fundación Ramón Areces.

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MLA style: Morten Meldal – Podcast. NobelPrize.org. Nobel Prize Outreach AB 2023. Fri. 9 Jun 2023. <https://www.nobelprize.org/prizes/chemistry/2022/meldal/podcast/>

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Nobel Prizes and laureates

Fourteen laureates were awarded a Nobel Prize in 2022, for achievements that have conferred the greatest benefit to humankind. Their work and discoveries range from paleogenomics and click chemistry to documenting war crimes.

See them all presented here.
Nobel Prizes 2022

Explore prizes and laureates

Look for popular awards and laureates in different fields, and discover the history of the Nobel Prize.