NATALIE WEINSTEIN ’14
In October 2011, Alexandra Nicaise ’13, a neuroscience major from Hamden, Conn, received an unexpected email from Misato Nishimura, head of International Affairs at the National Museum of Nature and Science in Tokyo, on behalf of Japanese Nobel Prize laureate in chemistry Ryoji Noyori. The email was an invitation to attend a special ceremony commemorating the tenth anniversary of the Noyori Science Awards.
In 2002, Nicaise wrote a research paper for a sixth grade class, entitled, “Ryoji Noyori: A Pioneer in the Synthesis of Chiral Molecules.” In her paper, she called Noyori “an extraordinary chemist that changed the world of chemistry” by discovering a new molecule that could help with the synthesis of only one enantiomer of many chiral molecules, which are three-dimensional molecules that are not superimposable on their mirror images. Each of the two superimposable mirror image molecules is called an enantiomer. “Thus, a chiral molecule can always exist as a pair of its enantiomers,” Nicaise wrote in her paper.
At the request of her father, Trinity Visiting Assistant Professor of Chemistry Olivier Nicaise, she sent a copy of her paper to the prize-winning chemist in Japan. At the time of Nicaise’s paper, Noyori was Director of the Research Center for Materials Science at Nagoya University and a professor of chemistry; he also had more than 400 publications to his name. Noyori was rather impressed with the sixth grader’s work and in April 2002 he sent her a signed certificate labeled, “Award for Excellent Research Paper 2002.” He also sent her a letter stating, “You must be an imaginative, highly talented schoolgirl. I am afraid that only ten female scientists have been awarded the Nobel Prize in the 100-year history…However, your name may be added to the great list in the future.” The certificate and letter had been in her closet for the past ten years. After receiving Nishimura’s email, Nicaise decided to unearth the documents.
Nishimura, having done a little detective work, found Nicaise’s name and college on Facebook. He then found her email address on Trinity’s web site and sent her the following, “The purpose [for which] I am writing you today,” said Nishimura, “is to confirm whether you are the very person Dr. Noyori has been looking for.” The reason for the email was to invite the Trinity junior to Japan, from March 25 to April 1, for the ceremony.
Nicaise’s surprise invitation inspired her to do some detective work of her own, to verify the validity of the email, invitation, and awards ceremony and make sure they were legitimate. She quickly discovered they were. Noyori, now the president of the RIKEN Natural Sciences Research Institute just outside of Tokyo, was so inspired by Nicaise’s research paper that he created an award, The Noyori Science Awards, “to encourage more children and students to have positive attitudes toward studying science.” Since 2002, Noyori has awarded the prize to a new student each year. This year marks the tenth year of the prize and the dignified chemist decided he wanted to invite, as his “special guest,” the young woman who had inspired the establishment of the prize so many years ago.
Nicaise accepted Nishimura’s invitation and began preparing for her trip abroad. When asked about the whole experience she exclaimed, “I’m really excited and pretty surprised that this all happened with one little paper.” Nicaise has spent the past week in Japan where she has been busy with her presentation, the ceremony, visiting the museum and the RIKEN institute, and doing some well-deserved sightseeing.