Professor Christina Moberg
EASAC Past President
- Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences
- KTH School of Engineering Sciences in Chemistry, Biotechnology and Health
- Professor emeritus organic chemistry
Interview with Professor Moberg
Questions to EASAC’s Past President Christina Moberg
“Science Leads the Way”
From 01.01.2020 until 31.12.2022 Christina Moberg was EASAC’s President. Christina is professor emeritus in organic chemistry at the Royal Technical University in Stockholm, Sweden. Since 1998 she is a Member of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences. We have asked her 14 questions about what matters to her in science and life.
What is true happiness for a scientist?
For me personally, it means understanding new chemical phenomena. True happiness is to get new results that help us understand the world a little better. To understand what happens, why it happens and how it happens.
What's your greatest fear as a scientist?
(laughs) Not to get enough funding.
In recent years, it has become more difficult to get funding for fundamental science. Scientific research which doesn’t point to a direct application, which doesn’t have an immediate economic purpose. I am worried because it’s basic research that helps us solve the problems of the future, the problems which we have not even formulated yet.
Actually, the most important technological applications very often originate from such basic discoveries.
Which living scientists do you most admire?
I work with the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, where we give the Nobel prize in chemistry and physics. To be honest, I admire everyone among those Nobel laureates – or those who might get the Nobel Prize in the future. Right now, I think of Jean-Marie Lehn from France (Nobel Prize in 1987 for the development and use of molecules with structure-specific interactions of high selectivity), and Ben L. Feringa from the Netherlands (Nobel Prize in 2016 for the design and synthesis of molecular machines) and Frances H. Arnold from the US (Nobel Prize in 2018 for the directed evolution of enzymes).
All three of them have a very broad overview and knowledge, also outside their own fields of expertise. That stimulates the creativity and the ability to take new directions in research. That is what makes them special and why I admire them.
What do you consider the most important virtue?
Honesty! And that applies both to science and to my personal life.
What's the quality you most like in a man or in a woman?
Honesty and curiosity. I wouldn't like to make a difference between men and women. Honesty comes first. And as scientist, curiosity is a must-have. Without curiosity you lose the ability to listen and to show interest in other people.
What do you consider your greatest scientific achievements?
I am an organic chemist and my field has been to develop new reactivity and new reactions, in particular making molecules without mirror symmetry. There are some molecules that have basically the same structure, but they aren’t the same. Think of them like hands: They are mirror images of each other, but they are not the same. If you rotate one hand it will never look just like the other. The preparation of such compounds is called asymmetric synthesis.
I am particularly proud of one achievement in more recent years, where we have developed a new type of process. It’s a procedure which has some resemblance to processes in living systems. In living processes, you are very far from equilibrium - the day you come to equilibrium, you are dead. In order to maintain a living process, you need to feed it with energy all the time. That’s why we breathe and eat to get the energy.
We have developed a cyclic process occurring far from equilibrium which needs to be constantly fed by energy and by which we can get very good results when it comes to asymmetric synthesis. This may be the most significant achievement for me.
One reason that this type of processes is gaining increased interest is that we can use them as a means to understand living processes. But asymmetric synthesis is also important in medicine, for example, to develop pharmaceuticals.
Which talent would you most like to have?
Patience would be good. And tolerance to different personalities, a talent I sometimes miss. It's difficult to improve such things, but I think that would be rewarding for me.
What is your favorite research topic?
Apart from my own research area, I find supramolecular chemistry fascinating. This is about how entire molecules interact.
If you think of atoms as letters, then molecules are words. A supra-molecule is a whole sentence, because it’s made of separate molecules which interact. It’s important for understanding a lot of phenomena in nature. One of the Nobel Prize laureates I mentioned, Jean-Marie Lehn, has been a key person in the development of this area.
Interactions between molecules are essential also in seemingly simple systems. Take a system such as water. We tend to believe it’s very simple, because it's just three atoms held together. But all the water molecules interact together, and it's not completely understood how these interactions are.
What is your most marked characteristic?
When I got this question from you, I sent an SMS to my son and to my daughter. My son said that I am tireless, and my daughter said irreproachable. I think they were a bit too kind, though.
What is your greatest regret?
Looking back on my scientific career, which is approaching an end now, I think I should have taken a little more time for reflection. Inspiration, stimulation and the ability to find new directions in science come from reflection. So, if I could remake my career, this is what I would change.
Who is your favorite writer?
I love August Strindberg and Göran Tunström. They are both from my home country Sweden, from different periods of time. Then, if we go to international authors, there is Elsa Morante from Italy. Among the German writers, I particularly like those from “Gruppe 47”. And I absolutely need to mention Simone de Beauvoir and Marie Cardinal.
Which historical figure do you most identify with?
The person who first comes to my mind is Marie Curie. It was very unconventional to be a woman scientist at her time. She made important discoveries that were rewarded with two Nobel prizes. And for me it was important that she was very honest with what she did, acknowledging other scientists for what they did.
What is your personal motto?
Many years ago, I received a postcard picturing a lady. She was very well dressed and carried an elegant handbag. She was running on a track with lots of hurdles. And she was jumping over one. And then she said that she takes on the challenges as they come, meaning that even if she had a lot of hurdles, a lot of challenges to take, she’d just take them one after the other.
Unfortunately, I lost that postcard, but this is how I would like to handle my life, concentrating on one challenge at a time and not being too nervous about all the challenges that may come in the future.
What is your motto for your work with EASAC?
We live in a more and more complex world, so policy decisions are becoming more and more complex. We also have a lot of uncertainty and ambiguity in decisions to make. That makes scientific evidence more and more important. Policymakers have to take other aspects into account as well, but scientific evidence is extremely important.
So maybe it’s something like “Science leads the way”. EASAC’s biggest strength here certainly is that we are and must remain truly independent from financial and industrial interests. And that we have access to the expertise of the Academies of Science within the EU and Norway, Switzerland and the UK.
March 2020. The interview has been conducted by Sabine Froning, Communication Works, for EASAC.