Nobel Prize has a UWM connection

This year’s list of Nobel Prize winners includes a UWM connection.

Alexander “Leggy” Arnold, an associate professor of chemistry and biochemistry at UWM, did his master’s and doctoral research under Bernard “Ben” Feringa, who shared the Nobel Prize in chemistry with Jean-Pierre Sauvage and Fraser Stoddart. The scientists were honored for their work in developing the first nanomotors, molecule-size devices capable of human-controlled movement.

From 1996 to 2002, Arnold worked under Feringa at the University of Groningen in the Netherlands. He received his master’s degree in 1998 and his doctorate in 2002. He discussed his time with Feringa, as well as his current work at UWM and the Milwaukee Institute of Drug Discovery.

How did you initially connect with Dr. Feringa?

I first went to the Rheinisch-Westfaelische Technische Hochschule Aachen [in Germany], and I started studying chemistry. During that time, I got interested in studying abroad, more specifically in the Netherlands, where I met Ben Feringa.

It was an eye-opening moment for me. For the first time I could actually approach a professor directly without an appointment, which was not the case in Germany at that time. Feringa is a professor who can motivate and inspire students in his research.

During that time, I was very fortunate to develop a molecular catalyst that enabled full stereocontrol for a particular conjugated addition reaction for the first time. It was a great moment. When I realized it, I went to Feringa’s office, and he got really excited about this discovery. Everyone is his group is really energetic, which was very much because of Ben Feringa.

What was your reaction when you learned he had won the Nobel Prize?

I felt really humbled and got emotional. My second reaction was that this is so well-deserved. Ben Feringa is a professor from a university that isn’t known around the world. Right now, he is probably the most famous person in Holland. In his humble way, he mentioned that his students, postdocs and technicians deserve a lot of credit for all the work they did to make it possible. That’s something that speaks about his personality.

How did you end up at UWM?

When I first came [in 2009], the collegial atmosphere in the chemistry and biochemistry department was exceptional, so I decided that UWM was the place I wanted to work. People here try to help each other and try to stimulate each other to become better and more successful. Another aspect I love being at UWM is that as a professor I can make a difference in students’ lives and can motivate them. I can help students to make better decisions and help them with their careers.

What should people know about the Milwaukee Institute of Drug Discovery?

It’s an academic entity focusing on important diseases. Currently, research to make new pharmaceuticals is not limited to the private sector anymore. We have come up with new antibiotics to treat people who are infected with antibiotic resistant bacteria, developing new treatments for neuropathic pain, and agents for memory loss during menopause.

What are some other projects that you’ve worked on here?

When I first came to UWM, I continued working with vitamin D. I’m very interested in the vitamin D receptor, the signaling receptor for vitamin D and its metabolites. The vitamin D receptor can manipulate the growth and differentiation of cells. I wanted to use this function to create new anti-cancer drugs. After several years, we found and developed compounds that can be used to treat ovarian cancer.

The other research area that I am interested in is asthma. We’re currently developing a pill you can take once a day to protect you from asthma attacks. Unlike corticosteroids, our treatment can be taken chronically for a long time without any adverse effects and without the use of additional inhalers.

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