Tineke Kalter was the first UG staff member to hear that Ben Feringa had been awarded the Nobel Prize. Kalter has been Feringa’s secretary since 2013 and had already witnessed him win a great many prizes. But this one was quite special, and the effects are still noticeable a year later. ‘We still receive dozens of requests every day.’
When Kalter applied for this job in 2013 she knew nothing about chemistry and had no idea of Feringa’s status. ‘But before long, people started telling me that he would one day win the Nobel Prize.’ Feringa himself would laugh at that idea; he didn’t seem to be interested in it at all. He happened to be in Groningen on that particular day, 5 October. ‘Even back then, Ben was already a kind of rock star among his colleagues. He travelled to lectures or prize-giving ceremonies at least about twenty times a year.’
The fact that he was in Groningen on 5 October was thanks to his daughter Emma. She was to be awarded her Bachelor’s degree in Movement Sciences on that day, so a trip to Munich had been postponed by one day. ‘I felt a bit tense that morning. I already had the “this is the moment” feeling the previous year, and I was actually a bit disappointed that he did not get the prize.’
He did win it this time though. The story has been told before: about an hour before the official announcement, Feringa received a phone call in his office while he was holding a progress meeting with a PhD student and his supervisor. ‘So he asked them to wait outside.’ The first thing Feringa did after the phone call was walk over to Kalter to warn her about what was to come. ‘I saw it immediately as he came in. His face was all pale... so I said, “you got it, didn’t you?” And he said yes. He was quite shocked.’
Feringa went back into his office to finish his meeting, and then came back to Kalter to tell her that he wanted his next meeting to be held as well. ‘But I said, you should call your wife now and prepare. He stayed in my office and I asked the colleagues who were waiting for him to reschedule their appointments. When they didn’t move and just looked at me suspiciously, I said: Get up and leave! They did suspect something, and they later told me that they could read it from my face.’
Feringa went to his office as he was expected to react to the announcement in a live broadcast. Kalter closed her door as well: ‘I wasn’t supposed to give anything away, so this seemed the safest thing to do.’ She watched the NOS announcement on television on her own. ‘We always used to watch it together. People here are always interested.’
After the announcement, ‘a wave of emotion rolled through the building’, says Kalter. She was ready and waiting with a pen and a notepad. ‘Ben had already said that we should expect a lot of commotion. My reaction was: “the only way to get through this will be to keep a cool head”. The phone never stopped ringing and Feringa’s e-mail inbox quickly overflowed. The Board of the University called Kalter; they wanted to speak to Feringa. ‘But he was on the phone for the television broadcast.’ A little later the entire Board arrived in person by official car.
The rest of the day all kinds of things happened, but Kalter was on phone duty. ‘To talk to people, and also to keep in contact with Ben, who would otherwise have been completely unreachable.’ He eventually had to miss his daughter’s Bachelor’s degree ceremony. Instead, he attended a ceremony in the Physics and Chemistry building (Kalter: ‘I arrived late for that and there were no seats left, so I shamelessly jumped the queue’) and a press conference in the Academy Building (Kalter: ‘I was in my office at that moment, answering the phone’).
Several extremely busy weeks followed, as well as the ceremony in the Martinikerk. Kalter was the linchpin ; she had to make a lot of decisions in Feringa’s absence. ‘We work together extremely well, so I have a good idea of what he does or doesn’t want.’ And then 10 December came, the actual award ceremony in Stockholm.
Kalter was there: ‘Of course I had hoped for it, although I didn’t count on anything. He could only bring fourteen official guests, and he has a lot of brothers and sisters.’ But she was invited as part of the delegation. Kalter praises the Nobel Foundation organization. ‘I got along with them very well. They had all these carefully compiled scenarios with all the details and requirements. And they were also very polite, friendly, and willing to think along.’
Once they had arrived in Stockholm, Kalter’s coordinating work was done. ‘Ben was assigned his own chauffeur and a diplomat to guide him. But I brought the scenarios anyway, just in case. I knew exactly how many steps he had to take on the stage to reach the king.’
There were a lot of receptions prior to the award ceremony. On the big day, Kalter was seated on the balcony with the Dutch delegation. ‘Rector Elmer Sterken took a nice picture of that and tweeted it with the caption Feringa’s fanclub’, Kalter laughs. Everyone was dressed appropriately, in full evening dress. The ceremony was followed by a dinner. ‘There were about 1200 to 1400 guests, and everything was perfectly organized.’ (For a photographic impression of the banquet, see the Nobel Prize website.)
The etiquette rules had also been spelled out for them. ‘Once the king had sat down, the guests were no longer allowed to stand up. So the rules also included a tip: make sure you go to the toilet before the king arrives.’ The hall was impressive: ‘Like Versailles around 1700.’ The atmosphere was lightened by the presence of a great number of students. All guests had assigned seats. ‘I was between two professors, from Sweden I believe. But I always enjoy myself in situations like this.’
Whereas Kalter went home after five days, Feringa extended his stay by more than a week. ‘He held a lot of lectures and visited schools. At one of those schools, a little boy did an experiment that went horribly wrong. Ben patted him on the shoulder and comforted him by saying “"you’ll make a good scientist, because you now know what disappointment feels like”. That’s so typical of him.’
They returned to the Netherlands to piles of invitations. Feringa has trouble saying no: ‘He was already very well known before the Prize. And he also has a lot of friends in the academic world; that makes it even harder to say no.’ Kalter always makes the initial selection. ‘I first check whether something is logistically possible or relevant at all. If not, then I won’t even bother Ben with it.’ Feringa was recently invited to a conference in 2018. ‘The date was impossible, so I asked them when the next edition would be. In 2020, they said. So I said fine, send us an invitation for that.’
Last autumn, Kalter and Feringa expected the chaos to subside after the award ceremony in December. Kalter laughs: ‘That was a little naïve.’ The requests kept coming in, an extra secretary was hired, and Feringa travels even more than he already did. ‘And in the meantime he also heads a large research group. It’s a pity we can’t clone Ben.’
Kalter has accepted that this is just the way it is. ‘Ridiculously busy is the new normal here. I officially work 32 hours a week, but I often log in from home, for example on Sunday, to check how many e-mails I’ll have to answer on Monday.’ And yes, of course it’s great fun. The atmosphere in the group is good and the working relationship with Feringa is excellent. ‘There is no real distinction between academic and support staff in this group. Ben values all of us, and he shows his appreciation too.’
Looking back, what was the highlight of it all? ‘Stockholm was great, and so was the event in the Martinikerk, but best of all was perhaps the ceremony in Feringa’s hometown. The people there performed sketches, in which they playfully made fun of Ben. Everyone loved it. The choir sang – and we all sang along – and the whole place just radiated with companionship.’
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