Martin Oestreich has established himself as a top scientist in a surprisingly short time. Oly 29 years old, the chemist became head of an Emmy Noether junior research group in 2001, followed by a professorship at the University of Münster in 2006. Since 2011, Martin Oestreich has been Einstein Professor of Organic Chemistry at the Technical University of Berlin. His focus on synthesis and catalysis lies in the field of tension between material science and life sciences. The professorship is part of the Cluster of Excellence “Unifying Concepts in Catalysis“ (UniCat).
»Like a game of Lego«
Engineering molecules with my own hands in the lab reminds me in some ways of playing with Lego bricks as a child. Getting to tinker with molecules was one of the reasons I decided to study chemistry. Meanwhile, my workplace is no longer in the lab. That’s just part of a career in science: at some point, you go from being an experimenter to a manager. Today, I gain satisfaction from the fact that I can tackle larger and more challenging projects, because with 20 people working for me, I have a steady stream of results to compile and evaluate. And training young researchers is very motivating. It’s always a proud day when I can see them go off into the world as independent scientists after their PhD.
My research group looks at fundamental issues in catalysis. I work with two rather unconventional elements in organic chemistry: boron and silicon. I try to introduce them into organic molecules and then develop catalysts based on these composites. The long-term objective is for these catalysts to replace expensive precious metals and accelerate or even enable the formation of chemical bonds.
My work is clearly basic research. Of course, I could claim that our results will be important for everyday items in 20 years. But in reality, we are at the very bottom of the food chain. It is a real problem that science today is so focussed on fast results and quick wins. Financing institutions often demand a description of potential applications or use scenarios to justify funding. We currently do not allocate enough risk capital so that scientists can have more freedom in their work. If we only did minutely planned research with clear, direct ties to applications, we would have no novel findings. Basic research harbours the seeds of innovation.
The system is not designed to tolerate long stretches without new discoveries. Back when I was a postdoc, I decided to work in a field of research that was not part of the mainstream at the time, and I needed to get through a long phase without any breakthroughs. I put in some 80-hour weeks in the lab, but it paid off. At some point, I was getting excellent results and suddenly people were noticing my work. To do successful research, you not only need a good deal of stamina, but also mentors and financers that don’t get nervous if everything does not immediately go as planned. Creating new knowledge takes work, and not just a simple trip to the drawing board.