Stay Eternally Optimistic, Says Nobel Laureate Ei-ichi Negishi at GYSS@one-north 2016

Believe it or not, before Ei-ichi Negishi became a Nobel Prize-winning organic chemist, he was a farmer.

AsianScientist (Jan. 21, 2016) – Believe it or not, before Ei-ichi Negishi became a Nobel Prize-winning organic chemist, he was a farmer.

Born in 1935 in Hsinking, the capital of Manchuria now known as Changchun, China, Professor Negishi lived in tough conditions during World War 2, moving to Seoul, Korea, with his family when he was eight.

“I was in Manchuria from zero to eight years old. From eight to ten I was in Korea, at which point World War 2 ended, and all Japanese were to come back to Japan, which we did,” recalled Negishi, who is visiting Singapore for the Global Young Scientists Summit@one-north 2016 this week. “It was a very difficult time for just sheer survival.”

Back in Japan, Negishi’s father purchased some land in the suburbs, just outside of Tokyo in Kanagawa Prefecture, where the family began farming to make ends meet.

“For about two years, in junior high, myself and my elder sister, the oldest two kids, we helped, and I farmed,” said Negishi with a laugh, adding that he didn’t think he was well suited to farming as a career.

Real chemistry is hard, apparently

After a short-lived stint in farming, Negishi graduated in 1958 from the University of Tokyo, Japan, and joined Japanese chemical and pharmaceutical company Teijin as a research chemist. The company gave him sabbatical leave when he obtained a Fulbright All-Expense Scholarship in 1960 to study at the University of Pennsylvania in the United States.

The freshman graduate student had a rather successful academic run, acing eight exams in a row. Negishi believes that his record has yet to be tied or broken, five decades later. But that roaring success on paper failed to convert to sparks in the laboratory.

“In my first year at the University of Pennsylvania, I had unexpectedly good results in the cumulative examinations; I got eight straight excellent marks. It was a very strenuous year, but I was very successful. I gained a tremendous confidence.”

“In my second year, when those tests were over, I started thinking what I might do. I recalled with that success I went into the laboratory, and my first year in the laboratory was a miserable failure. Paper chemistry is one thing, but real chemistry in the lab was another,” he shared with a chuckle.

A bruised ego aside, it set the ball rolling for Negishi’s eventual research success. Looking at the state of the art in organic chemistry, he asked himself, ‘Why is organic chemistry so complicated and difficult to execute?’ He looked at widely-used reactions such as acetoacetic ester synthesis and malonic ester synthesis, wondering why these couldn’t be simplified any further.

Using the analogy of Lego bricks, Negishi described his vision for organic synthesis—he wanted to synthesize complex chemical compounds from basic starting materials in a fuss-free manner, such as how one can build virtually anything from Lego bricks.

But those ideas would have to wait. After completing his PhD studies in 1963 under the supervision of Professor Allan Day, Negishi returned to his day job in industry.

A career turning point

At Teijin, Negishi was tasked to develop a new type of spinnable rubber. It was the hurdles he faced in commercializing the rubber that proved to be an important turning point for Negishi, one that would cause him to bid adieu to industrial chemistry.

“I came up with a new spinnable rubber. The company was ready to industrialize, and I was waiting, waiting. Then, the company said, ‘Well, in view of the overall situation, it is a little too premature to go ahead and industrialize.’ I was so disappointed.”

“My conclusion was that, in a company, I cannot control my own fate… That was the end, when I said, ‘I’m going to leave industry.’ I gave them my resignation statement,” Negishi continued.

In 1966, Negishi joined Purdue University as a post-doctoral researcher, working with mentor Professor Herbert C. Brown. From 1972 to 1978, he was a faculty member at Syracuse University, and in 1979—the year Brown won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry—he returned to Purdue University as a full professor.

Building on the work of colleague Richard Heck, Negishi developed a more efficient way to link carbon-containing molecules using palladium as a catalyst. Palladium acts as an intermediary, binding the two carbon-containing molecules to itself and facilitating the formation of a new bond between them.

“What I have done is to come up with palladium catalyzed cross-coupling, which can be applied to a wide variety—it is unlimited—of carbon-carbon bond formation, which always remain a critical and central issue in any complex organic synthesis,” Negishi explained.

In 2010, Negishi was rewarded for his contributions to organic chemistry with the Nobel Prize in Chemistry, which he shared with Richard Heck and Akira Suzuki. His pioneering use of organozinc and several other organometallic compounds in palladium-catalyzed cross-couplings with aryl, alkyl, allyl and alkenyl halides is today a critical tool in any synthetic chemist’s toolbox, and has been extensively used by the pharmaceutical industry to manufacture drugs such as vancomycin, an antibiotic used against drug-resistant bacteria.

Stay optimistic and seek the right channels

Despite having left Teijin years ago with the resolution to never again interface with industrial chemistry, Negishi is paying it forward as a consultant to the company. As part of the contract, he mentors young chemists from Teijin who join his research group for further training. More recently, he became a consultant to air-conditioning manufacturer Daikin as the company expands its interests into chemistry.

He emphasizes the importance of going through the right educational channels, such as choosing the right high school and college. Negishi says his time at the University of Pennsylvania as a PhD student represented the real beginning of his training at a professional level. It was also there that he got to meet many Nobel Prize winners and gain inspiration from them.

“One day Professor [Herbert] Brown came [to the University of Pennsylvania to give a talk], and when I heard him speak about hydroboration, I said, ‘This guy is going to win the Nobel Prize for sure. I should go to him and learn how to win a Nobel Prize.’ With that motivation in mind, I approached him,” said Negishi.

Brown and the chair of the chemistry department at Purdue University were instrumental in helping Negishi secure a post-doctoral position and later a faculty position at Purdue University, where he is now the H. C. Brown Distinguished Professor of Chemistry and inaugural director of the Negishi-Brown Institute.

Fast forward to 2016, it is hard to tell that Negishi is all 80 years of age, for he still travels the globe extensively to speak to scientists—both young and old—on the beauty of organic chemistry, and the importance of optimism in scientific research.

“This is how I eventually got the Nobel Prize, with eternal optimism. Never get discouraged. Keep working,” he said.

Asian Scientist Magazine is a media partner of the GYSS@one-north 2016.


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