Meeting Nobel Laureates

03.07.2017 | News

By:  Marianne Lucien

ETH Zurich’s Thomas Gianetti meets up with the world’s most promising Young Scientists at the Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting.

Thomas Gianetti at the 67th Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting
Thomas Gianetti at the 67th Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting (Image: ETH Zurich)

If there were a Nobel Prize for passion in science, then Thomas Gianetti would surely count among its laureates. When Gianetti, a post-doctoral Fellow in the Grützmacher group of ETH Zurich’s Inorganic Chemistry Lab, speaks about science a broad smile comes across his face and a his eyes light up with ideas. It is clear that he has embarked on a life-long mission to save the planet or, at the very least, contribute to the advancement of research in “Green Chemistry.” Focused on Nitrous Oxide (N2O), a harmful greenhouse gas and ozone-depleting agent, Gianetti anticipates his research will reveal a future use of N2O as a clean oxidant instead of an environmental hazard.

N2O may seem like a minor problem compared to CO2 or methane, but recent research suggests that it is nearly 300 times more powerful than other greenhouse gases. While it occurs naturally, over the past 40 years farmers have adopted intensive agricultural processes to meet the demands of an ever-increasing world population. Mass food production requires a lot of fertilizer resulting in nitrates. Nitrates from fertilizer use, along with other industrial processes, have increased N2O emissions by approximately one-third. “While CO2 is and must remain at the forefront of the fight, climate change is a multi-faceted war and N2O is my battle,” he says.

Nerd heaven

Last week Gianetti participated as a Young Scientist in the 67th Lindau Nobel Laureate meeting. A rare and, likely, once in a lifetime opportunity to meet with and learn from 30 Nobel Laureates - 28 in his field of Chemistry. “It is like nerd-heaven,” says Gianetti. For five years as a PhD student at the University of California Berkeley, Gianetti walked past the photos of Nobel Laureates, Mario José Molina and Kurt Wüthrich, a Nobel Laureate also affiliated with ETH Zurich, that hang in a hallway of the Latimer building where he worked. “Laureates like Molina and Richard Schrock are my idols, my mentors in Chemistry. Schrock inspired my passion for academia. Meeting them, along with Kurt Wüthrich last week, was not only a pleasure and an honour, but the greatness of their achievements still inspires me.”

During the week at Lindau, Gianetti presented his research on N2O activation in poster sessions and served as a panellist in a discussion about Science Careers. Due in part to his experience at ETH Zurich, he will advance his career - pursuing his passion for research and teaching - at the University of Arizona, where he has accepted an Assistant Professorship commencing in Spring 2018.

Fight for your fate

Born and raised on the French Riviera just outside of Marseille, Gianetti is the only son of Italian immigrants. Perhaps, this is where he learned the value of perseverance. Always fascinated by life, he admits his parents, Nicole and Antoine, and elder sister, Audrey might say that his inquisitive nature and incessant “how” and “why” questions as a child drove them a bit crazy. Reluctantly, he confesses that his passion for science came much later than most who seek an academic career. His admiration for Newton and other pioneers in science inspired the realization that science is ultimately about discoveries that help people.

When studying as an undergraduate at CPE Lyon, Gianetti found his passion recalling, “I remember the exact moment in the lab when I made my first gram of paracetamol (acetaminophen) – you know, like for headaches. It was just a simple synthesis, but I had such a feeling of success that I decided right then and there that I wanted to be a chemist – to make molecules that helped people.” At first, Gianetti thought he might become a Chemical Engineer, but an internship in the UK brought self-awareness and he learned that he cared much more about exploring the “how” and “why” of fundamental research than research for industrial applications. The first in his family to pursue higher education, a career in academia seemed like uncharted waters. Gianetti applied to all of the top ten universities in the US receiving prompt rejection. Undeterred he found a way to apply as a visiting scholar and wrote more than 30 professors of chemistry at universities across the US eventually succeeding in a placement in the Professor Tilley’s group at UC Berkeley. This opportunity led to Gianetti’s PhD work with Professors John Arnold and Robert Bergman, also at UC Berkeley, to whom he expresses deep appreciation for their mentorship and guidance.

Attitude of gratitude

Gianetti is quick to attribute his achievements to others saying, “Success is never really your own. I am grateful for the support and influence of the people who have crossed my path, like ETH Zurich professor, Christophe Copéret, who I first met when studying in Lyon a decade ago and who helped me shape the foundation for my career.” It is ETH Zurich’s strong reputation and his connection to Copéret that led Gianetti to his post-doctoral research with Professor Hansjörg Grützmacher. He says, “Hansjörg has been extremely supportive, a mentor and a friend.”

Gianetti defines his success in life and in his career by the quality of his relationships. His Mediterranean roots come through when he speaks about his family, “Without the love and support of my wife, Amelia and the encouragement of my extended family I would not be where I am today. I am a father of two and certainly, what I leave to my children and grandchildren is important to me. As chemist, I feel a responsibility to make an impact.”

Nina Hentzen, Cornelius Gropp, Philipp Probst, Thomas Gianetti und Thomas Edwardson, Nachwuchswissenschaftler der ETH Zürich, an der 67. Lindauer Nobelpreisträgertagung
Nina Hentzen, Cornelius Gropp, Philipp Probst, Thomas Gianetti, and Thomas Edwardson – Five Young Scientists from ETH Zurich at the 67th Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting (Image: ETH Zurich)

Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting

The 67th Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting, dedicated to Chemistry, hosted 28 Nobel Laureates on the island of Lindau on Lake Constance. There, five Young Scientists from ETH Zurich met up with 420 of the next generation of leading scientists: undergraduates, PhD students, and post-doctoral researchers from around the world. The Lindau Nobel Laureate Meetings foster the exchange of scientists of different generations, cultures, and disciplines. http://www.lindau-nobel.org/meeting/

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