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Princeton University chemistry professor David MacMillan won the 2021 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for his work on organocatalysis. Photo by Princeton University, Office of Communications, Denise Applewhite.

It was quite a year for Nobel Prizes at Princeton University. One day after meteorologist Syukuro Manabe won the prize for physics (U.S. 1, October 6), chemistry professor David MacMillan was named a winner of the award for chemistry.

In the following week several alumni of the university joined the party. Maria Ressa, a member of the undergraduate Class of 1986, was named a winner of the Nobel Peace Prize on October 8 for her work protecting freedom of expression as editor and CEO of the Philippines-based online news organization Rappler.com.

And on October 11, two graduate alumni were named among the winners of the Nobel Memorial Prize in economic sciences. David Card, who received his PhD in economics at Princeton in 1983 and taught there until 1996, was recognized for his contributions to labor economics. Much of that work was completed with the late Princeton economist Alan Krueger, who died in 2019.

The other Princeton-affiliated winner in economics was Joshua Angrist, who received his PhD from the university in 1989. He shares half the award with Guido Imbens, a professor at Stanford, for their “methodological contributions to the analysis of causal relationships.”

MacMillan, 53, the winner of the chemistry prize, shares the award with Ben List of the Max-Planck Institute in Germany. Both were recognized for their development of a process called organocatalysis, a new method for molecular construction that had a massive impact on pharmaceutical research.

He is the first faculty member at Princeton to have won a Nobel in chemistry.

In a press release from the Nobel Committee their work was explained as follows:

“Many research areas and industries are dependent on chemists’ ability to construct molecules that can form elastic and durable materials, store energy in batteries or inhibit the progression of diseases. This work requires catalysts, which are substances that control and accelerate chemical reactions, without becoming part of the final product. For example, catalysts in cars transform toxic substances in exhaust fumes to harmless molecules. Our bodies also contain thousands of catalysts in the form of enzymes, which chisel out the molecules necessary for life.

“Catalysts are thus fundamental tools for chemists, but researchers long believed that there were, in principle, just two types of catalysts available: metals and enzymes. Benjamin List and David MacMillan are awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry 2021 because in 2000 they, independent of each other, developed a third type of catalysis. It is called asymmetric organocatalysis and builds upon small organic molecules.”

The statement continues: “Organic catalysts have a stable framework of carbon atoms, to which more active chemical groups can attach. These often contain common elements such as oxygen, nitrogen, sulphur or phosphorus. This means that these catalysts are both environmentally friendly and cheap to produce.”

MacMillan was born in Scotland and received his undergraduate degree from the University of Glasgow before undertaking his graduate studies at the University of California, Irvine. He arrived at Princeton in 2006 and served as chair of the chemistry department from 2012 to 2015.

In a statement, university president Christopher Eisgruber noted, “David MacMillan is a brilliant chemist whose transformative insights and accomplishments have enhanced the power of organic chemistry to benefit human health and address other practical problems. He is also a faculty leader who during his time at Princeton has worked with colleagues to build this University’s Department of Chemistry into one of the world’s best. All of us at Princeton are thrilled to celebrate this well-deserved honor.”

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