Success wouldn’t have happened if I wasn’t Scottish, says Nobel Prize winner

A Nobel Prize-winning scientist has said his success would not have happened if he was not Scottish as growing up in the country had helped him learn how to convey ideas quickly.

Professor David WC MacMillan said it felt “brilliant, just really fantastic” after he and German scientist Professor Benjamin List were jointly awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry earlier this week.

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, of Princeton University in the US, said the concept has been used to make medicines faster and has 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, in the studio or at home, everything around you, stuff, is all made by chemical reactions, and 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.

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.”

Princeton University said the scientist gained his undergraduate degree in chemistry at the University of Glasgow in 1991, before being awarded a PhD in organic chemistry at the University of California, Irvine, in 1996.

He studied at Harvard University before beginning his independent career at the University of California, Berkeley, moving to Caltech and then Princeton in 2006.

Scotland’s First Minister 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.”