Nobel Prize winner says Scottish upbringing is root of his success

Chemist says Scots' natural story-telling ability allowed him to articulate concepts accurately

A Nobel Prize-winning scientist says his Scottish upbringing has been a major factor in his success, as it allowed him to convey ideas quickly.

Prof David MacMillan and German scientist Prof Benjamin List were jointly awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry earlier this week.

Speaking after the event, Prof MacMillan, who teaches at Princeton University in the US, said his success felt “brilliant, just really fantastic".

They were honoured after developing a new way of building molecules, according to the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, which organises the awards.

Prof MacMillan said the concept had been used to make medicines faster and had helped with the development of drugs for Alzheimer's, cancer and heart disease.

Asked to explain his discovery in layman's terms, he told BBC Radio Scotland's Good Morning Scotland programme: “If you look around yourself right now … everything is all made by chemical reactions.

“How those chemical reactions work is based on this thing called catalysis, and we invented these new types of catalysis that allowed you to do things you couldn't do before, to make new materials, new stuff around you.

“But probably the most important thing immediately is how to make medicines even faster, so that's been a great thing, how quickly you can now utilise that concept to actually do completely new ways of making medicines.”

Prof MacMillan grew up in North Lanarkshire and gained his undergraduate degree in chemistry at the University of Glasgow before moving to the US for postgraduate studies.

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Growing up in Scotland, you learn how to talk and you learn how to tell a joke and you can get to a punchline
Nobel prize-winner Prof David MacMillan

The scientist said his Scottish upbringing helped him learn how to tell a story and explain concepts quickly.

He said: “Growing up in Scotland, you learn how to talk and you learn how to tell a joke and you can get to a punchline, and one of the things about being over here, or anywhere, you can convey ideas quickly, from growing up in Scotland you're good at it.

“So we were able to convey to people that this was actually a pretty interesting and valuable concept that people could use in science and it certainly helped my career and certainly helped the science move forward, but it wouldn't have happened if I was not Scottish.”

Prof MacMillan attended New Stevenston Primary School and Bellshill Academy, and he praised the “brilliant” education he received.

He said: “I am one of those people who's incredibly lucky to have come through that system.”

He gained his undergraduate degree in chemistry at the University of Glasgow in 1991 before continuing his studies and career in the US.

Scotland's First Minister Nicola Sturgeon tweeted her congratulations, saying: “Many congratulations to David on his Nobel Prize. An extraordinary achievement.”

The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, which organises the Nobel Prize awards, said on Wednesday: “Building molecules is a difficult art. Benjamin List and David MacMillan are awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry 2021 for their development of a precise new tool for molecular construction: organocatalysis.

“This has had a great impact on pharmaceutical research, and has made chemistry greener.”

Updated: October 7th 2021, 10:32 AM
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