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Posted on 9 June 2022 by Wendy Plump

David MacMillan: “What to Talk to Me About”

Sir David W.C. MacMillan, 2021 Nobel Laureate in Chemistry. Photo/Credit: Corinne Strauss Photography

David MacMillan wants to make this easy for you. As a co-recipient of the 2021 Nobel Prize in Chemistry and a lecturer at the upcoming 71st Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting, MacMillan doesn’t want students to be nervous about approaching him with questions. They can ask him about nearly anything.

In all likelihood, Lindau’s young scientists face this year’s chemistry-themed meeting beginning on June 26 with a mix of excitement and nervousness. The idea of making conversation with the world’s most accomplished scientists is intimidating. To get participants started, here are a few suggestions on what to talk about – with at least one of the laureates.

“I don’t like the whole idea of making people into these demi-gods no matter who they are. I just don’t buy into that,” said MacMillan. MacMillan was raised in a working-class neighborhood outside of Glasgow, Scotland where pretense of any kind was swiftly denounced.

About the Nobel Prize

“One of the things I enjoy is demystifying the whole process, to point out that we’re just ordinary people who happened to have won this great prize,” he added. “If people want to talk to me about anything that they find genuinely interesting – whether it’s chemistry, or sports, or something on TV – that’s great with me. I enjoy a good conversation about almost anything.”

One of MacMillan’s favorite subjects lately is the “craziness” of the situation he finds himself in: one moment, he is a hardworking synthetic chemist at Princeton University and the next, he is standing on the world stage with little notice and no preparation. The last nine months since winning the Nobel Prize have been, from his perspective, wildly disorienting.

And that’s a great place to start.

“I love talking about the craziness of this situation,” said MacMillan. “It’s a curious thing, what it’s like to be going through this. I mean, your whole world is uprooted in this great way overnight. It’s so much fun. But it’s also pretty overwhelming. We’ve been going full bore for nine months now.’

Three Things to Ask Him About

Sports. Hawaii. And music.

“Number One, I’m a sports addict. I love sports. That’s always been a trait of everyone in my family. On a Saturday, we just loved getting together to bet on sports events,” said MacMillan.

MacMillan played football out in the street in front of his home every afternoon after grade school, so he’s a lifelong fan of the sport. He has a favorite team in Scotland that he is devoted to. That team recently hosted him at a game, an experience that still has him buzzing.

In addition, one of his favorite appearances since the Nobel was on the BBC Radio Scotland program, “Off the Ball.” MacMillan is a huge fan of the talk show’s two raucous hosts and said being a guest on their football program was a “lifelong dream”.

MacMillan and his wife, Jean, were married on a beach in Hawaii in 2006. They have been returning with large groups of extended family and friends annually ever since. “It’s my favorite place on the planet,” he said.

Finally, music. MacMillan plays the drums – “badly” – and has a drum kit at his home in Princeton, New Jersey. He loves talking about music of any kind.

One Thing Not to Ask About

If there’s one question MacMillan has been asked to the point of exhaustion, it is: “What is your best advice for young students?”

It’s not that MacMillan doesn’t want to be helpful. It’s just that he thinks there are many ways of finding success in science. Advice, he said, is often too reflective of the person giving it.

“I think the advice thing is fine, but I’m not quite convinced that it’s the smartest thing in the world. I think everyone has to kind of do it their own way. I’m not sure that it’s so good for any of us to say, ‘Do this or do that.’ I mean, we all did this by just following our own path. There is no one way. For me, normalization is good. Not pontificating.”

One Thing He Wants to Know

The Lindau meeting offers Nobel laureates a chance to talk shop, too – with each other.

“Oh, I definitely want to know about other laureates’ experiences and hear what they’ve learned that’s been valuable to them,” said MacMillan. “When I was in Korea recently, I met this other Nobel Laureate who was fantastic, Professor Randy Schekman. What a great guy – he’s like your favorite uncle. He just had so many stories about what it was like for him. I just loved it.”

As he was growing up, MacMillan said, he would always listen to the stories of family members and neighbors who were older than him, regardless of the subject. There was often something to be learned, something to laugh over, and something he could take away from the conversation.

“Professor Schekman was like that,” MacMillan said. “I could talk to him every day.”

Just Relax and Be Yourself

Few people are encouraged to be themselves in the way that young people growing up in Scotland are, said MacMillan. Eccentricity is favored. Characters are valued. And being relaxed and funny is practically a national requirement.

“I love, love, love people who are funny. People who are self-deprecating are my favorite people in the world,” said MacMillan. “One of the reasons I enjoy it is that, number one, it means people don’t take themselves too seriously. Growing up, that was one of the first things you learned. Even in my own family, we just made fun of each other from the time we woke up to the time we went to sleep. It gave me a sense of how necessary humor is, and how much fun it is to laugh.”

“That’s one of the best things, right? Having a normal conversation with normal people.”

Wendy Plump

Wendy Plump is the Communications Specialist for the Department of Chemistry at Princeton University.