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Chemistry AND Curiosity with Omar Yaghi

AND is the Future podcast - Season 3, Episode 7

Prioritizing curiosity over a focus on end results, and taking risks to change the course of the future. 

In this episode, Ilham sits down with the winner of Syensqo's 2024 Ernest Solvay Prize, Omar Yaghi. Omar has used his passion for science to change the course of the future with his discovery of reticular chemistry. His pioneering work is making a positive impact on our planet, purifying our water, air and fuel for generations to come. His research has inspired further development of new materials and sparked discoveries that can help solve major problems such as CO2 capture, hydrogen storage, water harvesting and gas purification. 

02:21 - Becoming one of the most renowned scientists of today
09:50 - Pioneering a new field of chemistry
15: 40 - Applying groundbreaking science to real-world scenarios
19:28 - Taking risks and embracing failure

22:44 - The power of peer recognition 
24:15 - Looking toward the future 
16:22 - Democratization of technology 
30:02 - The importance of curiosity in STEM education

Podcast available on   Apple podcasts     Spotify     Google podcasts

Meet Professor Omar Yaghi

Omar was born in 1965 in Amman, Jordan to a refugee family from Mandatory Palestine. He relocated to the United States at age 15, following encouragement from his father. Despite his limited English proficiency, he pursued his studies and obtained his PhD in 1990. He then became a National Science Foundation Postdoctoral Fellow at Harvard University. Notably, his significant contributions lie in the design, synthesis, application, and promotion of metal-organic frameworks (MOFs). In the 1990s, Omar pioneered reticular chemistry, revolutionizing traditional coordination polymers into structurally robust and permanently porous MOFs, which are now extensively utilized around the world.


Ilham Kadri: Hello, everyone, and welcome to another episode of the AND is the Future podcast. Today, I am beyond excited to speak to the recipient of the 2024 Ernest Solvay Prize, Professor Omar Yaghi. In the past five years hosting the Ernest Solvay Prize, we've had two women laureates and this year a Middle Eastern winner. 
I've had, of course, no influence at all on this, but it shows that we are going for more diversity and I can only say I just love it. Now, it's not every day that you get to talk to a founder of a whole new field in chemistry. And my background, as you know, I'm a chemist, so it just delights me to speak to Omar.
In 1995, Omar laid the foundation for what we know today as reticular chemistry, the science of building chemical structures from molecular building blocks. With this pioneering work, Omar has unlocked a promising future for clean fuel, clean water, and clean air. The work he has done is nothing short of incredible and embodies everything the Ernest Solvay Prize stands for: innovation and science at the service of advancing humanity. I can't wait to speak to him about chemistry AND curiosity. Omar, thank you so much for taking the time to speak to me and to us today.

Omar Yaghi: Thank you, Dr. Ilham Kadri. Thank you very much. It's a pleasure to be here.

Ilham Kadri: Thank you, Omar. You can call me Ilham going forward.
Omar Yaghi: Absolutely.

Becoming one of the most renowned scientists of today

Ilham Kadri: So before I ask about your incredible work, Omar, I want to start like I do with my guests traditionally by knowing where your passion for science started. And I know you were born and raised in Jordan as part of a refugee family. You grew up in a household with many children and very few amenities.
And I read somewhere in your fabulous bio that you wanted to become a chemist after seeing a publication with pictures of molecules when you were a child. So how did that little boy grow up to be one of the most renowned scientists of today's scientific community and history? And tell us what sparked your passion for science, Omar.

Omar Yaghi: Well, it's very unusual because the way I fell in love with chemistry was when I was about 10 years old, I went into the library during the break, during the lunch break, it was supposed to be locked, but in fact it wasn't. And so I slipped into the library and I looked in one of the books and there were these drawings.
They're like stick and ball drawings that chemists normally use. I didn't know what they were. But I was just staring at them for a while and I realized, going home that day, that I have discovered something really interesting. And it's almost like you met a girl and you fell in love and you don't want to tell anybody about that.

Ilham Kadri: This is the great love.

Omar Yaghi:  So I became more and more interested in these drawings and more and more interested in what I discovered was chemistry and molecules. And then the more I learned, the more I became interested that the molecules really are the makeup of everything we see around us. And the different things that molecules are responsible for.
So that really sparked my interest. And in a way, now when I talk to emerging scholars, to young kids, let's say, I always say that exceptional things can come from very unexceptional circumstances. And no matter where you are in the world, your love for and passion for something like chemistry could emerge from you know, very challenging circumstances.
So, I think the old cliche that passion makes a big difference is really true. I mean, you have to be interested in what you're doing. And I think that that has followed me through my career. And so I was very adamant that I am interested in chemistry and I am more and more; the more I experienced chemistry, the more I became interested. And as an undergraduate, I was really involved in three different projects at the same time with three different professors. That's how much I love the lab. And so, I would say that the second important event happened in an undergraduate lab, where we crystallize organic compounds and when you crystallize them, they fall out of the solution like snowflakes. And then when you realize that this is the most ordered form of nature for molecules, it became quite fascinating for me. 

Ilham Kadri: Yeah.

Omar Yaghi: So I would say it was beauty of molecules, beauty of crystals. There was not much depth there. It was just- it's just raw interest in these things. And, you know, throughout my life, I have been interested in discovery. You know, as a child, I was a very quiet child. I didn't do what the other kids did. I was very passive. It seems like I spent my whole childhood sitting in a corner and watching what everybody else is doing.And it made me wonder, well what controls things? Why do things behave the way they do?
You know, if you look at your surroundings, whether it's plants or animals, what is hidden behind what we see? And so that, you know, more and more deepened my interest. And I was always interested in doing something different.

Ilham Kadri: And did you like books when you were a kid or, you know, I think you are speaking about sleeping in a library, right, and looking at those molecules. And you already gave us great advice for leadership, you know, great leadership from passion makes a big difference. It can be challenging, but you keep the course of your love and passion for molecules and you are an observer and discoverer. But how did it start?
Was it in your home? Was it around you?

Omar Yaghi: You know, this question always makes me think back as to what really made me so disciplined. And I think family makes a big difference. I grew up in a family that, you know, was on the edge of poverty. 
They see education as a way out, as a way out of poverty, as a way of creating a better life and so on. And so it was drilled into us that education, education, education, your studies, your grades are very important. And I think that was a very important way to be raised and to appreciate that doing well in your classes was paramount. It was everything. It was acceptance within the family. It was everything for you as a child. There was another thing that really helped me personally is that on the way from school to my home - in right in the middle of that journey was my father's shop. And I would stop in my father's shop on the way home and help him with the chores, and whether it's cleaning or whatever.
I was taught through that when you do a job, do it well. Otherwise, don't do it at all.

Ilham Kadri: Yeah,

Omar Yaghi: Do the job perfectly. Otherwise, don't even embark on doing it. 
I think naturally as a kid, I was more disposed towards doing things differently. That's why I was, as I mentioned, I was sort of more passive and didn't play what other kids were playing, but rather wanted to develop my own style. And I think that that has me more and more interested in discovery and the thrill of discovery. All these things, as you know, are absolutely essential in science.
The discipline, the focus and the ability to break away from the pack so that you can discover great things. So I think all these things have played an important role.

Ilham Kadri: And here, Omar, so we have something in common. We have this passion for chemistry, obviously, but also I'm touched with what you discuss about education. And I grew up in Morocco and my grandma who raised me in a very humble and poor environment told me that women and girls have two exits in their lives.
The first one is from their father's home to their husband's home and the second one was to the grave. And she invited me to find my third door. So, like you, it was education, so it just resonates with me.

Pioneering a new field of chemistry

So let us now jump in time and move on to reticular chemistry. And to put it simply, and it's probably simplistic, it means linking molecules, building blocks through strong bonds to create extended crystalline structures. And  I read an article of you saying, this is how you make materials using building blocks and turn chemistry into legos. I'm not sure it was from you or from someone else, but it may, you know, resonate with the less chemist in the audience.
So, today, literally, this field of science has created an immense potential for the betterment of humanity. But what intrigues me is something I read about you saying, and you may confirm it or not, you say that your research didn't start with the goal to create a positive societal impact. In fact, you once even said that the way great things happen in science is by answering intellectual questions, not necessarily by picking the societal problem and trying to find a solution for it.
So, what inspired you one day to apply yourself to such a challenge and what questions were you attempting to answer, Omar?

Omar Yaghi: That's a good question, Ilham. I felt as a graduate student, the way we made materials was not very satisfying. We used to call it a shake and bake approach where you take stuff, you mix it together and you heat it up and you let thermodynamics give you what it does. And there was very little control over what kind of materials you make and designing them and things like that.
And so, the natural extension of that was could we make the making of new materials a rational way. And clearly you needed organic building units because organic building units are the ones that at the end of the day you can functionalize and tailor make the material. So, at that point, it was important to develop the chemistry behind linking building units together.
There are millions of molecules that were known, and if we could develop a way of linking them and crystallizing them, we knew we would have done something very important in chemistry. As an assistant professor at the age of 27, I didn't go in because I wanted to change the world.
My dream was to publish one paper that has a hundred citations. Y But when we succeeded in doing this, we realized that we can expand it and because we can use many different building blocks, and it's almost like Lego chemistry where anything you can imagine could potentially be made.
Because we have figured out how to make them, how to crystallize them.  It was clear that that was very important. And I went into that because I was fascinated by controlling chemistry, right? Chemistry thrives on controlling matter on the atomic and molecular level. All great milestones in chemistry have started there. 
And so I was very interested in the abstract, in the conceptual and in the basic science. But then after we made a few of these, a CEO from a major chemical company came to visit me to see what, you know, what he has seen in the literature. Clearly, these were very interesting materials because some of them had surface areas that exceeded the traditional materials by far.
They broke the cords in surface areas. They were organic and inorganic, so you can vary the components nearly at will. They were highly porous. So, clearly there was something interesting there. So, I was showing him all these structures on my computer and models and everything like that. And his question was, well, what are they good for?

Ilham Kadri: Finally, the business question, right?

Omar Yaghi: I said, well, I am a scholar, okay. I mean, I just do basic science and the application that's engineering. So he said to me, you can be an excellent scientist doing what you're doing, but you'll never be a great scientist unless you drive your research to benefit society. And I think that was, I would say, a turning point for me and how I thought. And since that time, we certainly- I love to do basic science, but we also drive that all the way to making devices as we have done with water harvesting from air, CO2 capture, all the way to society. And boy, that is a most satisfying feeling when you're able to do that.

Ilham Kadri: Absolutely, and we thank him. I'm curious, who was that gentleman? He was a mentor and a great, you know, person or character for you in your journey. Anyway, because, you know, your research - even if it didn't start with that goal - the impact of your research today is just amazing. Thanks to reticular chemistry, we're closer to addressing some of the most pressing challenges humanity is facing.
And you talked about capturing CO2, amazingly harvesting water. I saw one of your pictures, or your students’ pictures in the desert in North America, you know, the Mojave Desert. I think it's one of the driest deserts in the Americas. But also hydrogen storage, etc. So what, give us some examples you've witnessed as a result of your work now looking at the applications towards a better, more sustainable future.

Applying groundbreaking science to real-world scenarios

Omar Yaghi: Well, I think it's very clear that being able to control matter on the atomic and molecular level, not just for discrete molecules as chemists have always done, but now in the extended structure regime, in the infinite regime, in the 2D and 3D. Now, you're able to design materials. You're able to craft the interior of these materials for various applications. As you mentioned, also in addition to hydrogen storage, CO2 capture, and water, there are a lot of also biomedical applications, catalysis. And colleagues around the world have been investigating, you know, hundreds of applications for these materials.
But more recently, I don't know if you saw in the literature, there are MOFs that are now being used for CO2 capture, especially capturing CO2  from cement manufacturing, which is one of the major industrial emissions of CO2.

Ilham Kadri: Absolutely. 

Omar Yaghi: And this MOF is being scaled up now to hundreds of tons to capture CO2 from several plants, starting in Canada, but also there are plans to expand it to other areas. So, I think that that's a testament of how basic research could branch out into many different applications that benefit society. I think with water harvesting, we're not very far behind that because already we have devices that deliver significant amounts of water per day with almost no energy input aside from ambient sunlight. 
So, I would say that we are even at the stage where we're past the engineering stage, and we are at the pre-commercial stage for water harvesting. Hydrogen storage is coming right behind that. And so, I think increasingly, you will see more and more applications of MOFs reaching society and being commercialized.

Omar Yaghi: And it's, again, the power of being able to control matter on the atomic and molecular level and the precision with which these materials not just can be made, but also modified and scaled up.
Ilham Kadri: And we love your areas of applications, by the way. This resonates with the Syensqo team. Hydrogen storage, we are in composites material and we produce through our membranes green hydrogen, which we store it safely, we transport it and we use it in fuel cells to produce electricity. 
So, water is also the scarcest resource, right? Humanity, we need to save, desalinate, purify from gray waters and capture CO2. I think my industry, the chemical industry, is indeed part of the problem. But as I call it, it's the mother of all industries and is part of the solution.

Taking risks and embracing failure

You talked about the MOF, so for the audience, this is a metallic organic framework. The MOF research you've been leading and pioneering. And it was not easy. I think I read somewhere. that your partner, Michael O'Keefe, said that at the start of your research, the comments you received was like a Greek chorus of fellow scientists who kept saying, it could not be done, it's not gonna work.
And you yourself said you took a huge risk as an assistant professor back then. You were putting it all on the line, your career, your credibility. What drove you to keep going on? You know, when the outcome is so uncertain. And tell us a bit more about the turning points of your research when you realized, wow, this is really working right.
And fortunately the risk you took paid off. But help us understand those sobering moments when you failed, and the value of failure in science. What can failure teach us, Omar?

Omar Yaghi: Well, you know, I mean, you think about it. I grew up where I grew up and I left when I was 15 and I was supposed to do good and contribute back to the family that you know, where our parents spent their whole life for the children, for the sake of the children, never having a day off.
And so it was, on a personal level, it was important for me to do something where I can shine and to show that, in fact, their work was worthy and produce something to make them proud. So, I think that there is always that component from a family point of view. But when you think about it, failure was not an option.
I mean, if you fail and you have to go back to your town or to your family with failure, that was not an option. So, you don't look back. And so, then the other thing is that, okay, I take a big risk. Sure, I will not be part of the chemistry establishment because I'm breaking away, I have to develop my own thing. But, what about that thrill of discovery?

What about those magnificent things that you might discover? So that all outweighed, for me, outweighed all the other risks.
I was convinced that there will be a discovery because I am convinced that nature is so rich in what it has to offer. We just have to be diligent enough in our observation and in our analysis to see what nature is offering. For me, the turning point was when a student came into my office and said, come professor, I want to show you this beautiful crystal I found, but I have a problem with it because I think it's unstable. And I don't think we should pursue it.
It's just so beautiful, but we're looking for stable materials and things like this. And I looked at it and I said, I don't think you should throw this away. I think you should pick that crystal and leave it in its mother liquor and analyze it using x-ray.
Because he was taking it out of the mother liquor and we didn't know it was porous, so porous, it lost all the solvent and it looked like it was decomposing, but in fact, it was just losing its crystallinity.

Ilham Kadri: Wow.

Omar Yaghi: And, but it was still on the molecular level, it was still fully intact, and the integrity of the structure was there.
I mean, this was an example of being present so that students who are actually making decisions, you know, when they're doing research, they're making decisions as to which observation, which finding to pursue further. And I think if we are as PIs, if we are too far away, we might miss that.
So I think urging the student firmly to look at those crystals. While that was the material that broke all records of porosity, that was what we call MOF-5. And, and in a way it was one of the major developments that started the field.

Ilham Kadri: Indeed, and this is the power of collaboration, of mentoring, of, you know, looking at things with the different prism and divergence.

The power  of peer recognition

So, now I want to bring it to the Ernest Solvay Prize, and you are the winner of our 2024 edition. Selected by a jury of renowned scientists, including two Nobel Prizes winners, from Professor Sven Lidin and Professor Steven Chu,Professor Ben Ferringa,  Professor Susumu Kitagawa from Kyoto University and Professor Dame Carol Robinson from Oxford.
As someone who had no idea back in 1995 that you would be here in 2024 receiving this prestigious accolade, what does this peer recognition mean to you, Omar?

Omar Yaghi: The most, I would say, gratifying recognition comes -  is the one that comes from peers.

Ilham Kadri: Yeah.

Omar Yaghi: And then looking at the Solvay Prize, it's an amazing prize, looking at who has won it over the years. I think that that tells you everything you want to know about how prestigious the prize is, so it's quite an honor.
Also, I would say, looking at my colleagues, whom I'm familiar with their work and their standing in the scientific community and having chosen me, that is also an extra honor.

Ilham Kadri: Well, listen, we are delighted and honored. I think the jury is looking at so many profiles around the world and I'm so excited because it's in our field, chemistry, as Syensqo, it's really our bread and butter. This is what we do every day.

Looking toward the future

And now there are groups, I read in around or about 100 countries doing the MOF, this Metal Organic Framework research you started and you pioneered. 
Looking ahead, what type of advancements are you still hoping to achieve?

Omar Yaghi: Well, there's a lot. This is only the beginning. I think one person may open the door, but building a field takes a whole community. So I really want to credit my students, postdocs, collaborators, those people who stood by me through the years and worked with me, worked hard, sacrificed - sometimes personal sacrifices - to push the chemistry forward and push our understanding of how to make this a reality.
I think the future is very bright. There's more basic science questions to be answered, for example. And one of them, if you go into a MOF and you vary the functionalities, and you have, let's say you make a MOF with a hundred different organic functionalities.
Now you begin to think about perhaps creating a MOF that would behave by coding for properties. Depending on the spatial arrangement of those organic functionalities in the pore. The organic function could be thought of as nucleotides in a DNA in that their spatial arrangement may very well code for a very specific property like capturing CO2 and so on.
So, that needs to be developed, I think. We have some preliminary evidence that that idea does work.
I am very passionate to give people around the world water independence. And I think harvesting water from air, which is a plentiful resource, free and being able to trap water from the air with no energy input aside from ambient sunlight may very well be the key for people around the world to say, ‘I have my own water, I can live wherever I want,  and give people that water independence.

Democratization of technology 

And you and I know many parts of the world where today this could be a great, a great benefit. There is a great need. for it. I think AI is going to do something absolutely magical for reticular chemistry. I think reticular chemistry, the building block approach is very powerful and is going to speed up.
It took us 25 years to get to water harvesting, to get to carbon capture. It doesn't need to take 25 years. So I think we need to start experimenting genuinely with AI approaches to speed up the process of doing research, but also the process of doing discovery. The exploration of this vast space requires powerful computation and AI tools, which we have already begun working on, and in fact created an institute that combines computer scientists and chemists here at Berkeley. We call it the Baker Institute of Digital Materials for the Planet, or BIDMAP. So we are on our way to getting there. 
I think, also, there is another aspect that I really think will be achieved in the fullness of time, and that's democratization of research. If I could create AI tools that allow anyone to plug into chemistry. Any emerging scholars, no matter where they are in the world, that they can go to a web interface and study chemistry, but also be able to make materials and exploit and start doing research and exploit them, build startup companies in there and develop their local economy.
So I think, I think we're going to get to a stage, I hope, where instead of a few scientists in a few countries around the world are solving the world's problems; many scientists in many countries around the world are solving the world's problems. And I think we will be better off when we achieve that. S So I think that's the opportunity for chemistry, but also opportunity for developing the minds and the skills of those emerging scholars. 
So I would say that these MOFs being investigated in many countries, AI tools, I think are going to lower the barrier for young scholars to get into research and prepare themselves so that they are doing productive work in their country.
Almost 90 percent of all people whose age is 30 or less live in developing countries. I don't see a peaceful world without bringing these people along. And I think this is just one approach that could contribute to that.
Ilham Kadri: I loved the concept of democratization of research and making it accessible to many more. And I grew up in Africa and there is an African continent full of youth and it needs more water because without water, there is no sustainable life. And I also am intrigued by Gen AI. I met Sam Altman, the OpenAI CEO in Davos a few months ago. And one of my questions is, can we Chat GPT Gen AI chemistry? And his answer-, he said, ‘Oh, it's very difficult because I can do Gen AI proteins or building blocks in biology but chemistry is extremely tough because it's unpredictable. So there are no codes and we need to write them.’
So, I hope that the Baker Institute you talked about can actually bring us more tools and ways to accelerate our research. 

The importance of curiosity in STEM education

So I would like to end this conversation with the message for the young scientists you talked about, Omar, and by going back to your belief in curiosity. You started your research from curiosity, observation and with discipline, you came a long way. And you have mentioned before that you believe STEM education should be similar.
So what are your recommendation and advices for the young people, the young scientists listening to us? 

Omar Yaghi:  I think that we need to move away from being driven towards outcomes because I think if we're curious and we try to work outside the trotted path, I think the outcomes will be much more magnificent than we would have otherwise. 
And I have advice, not just for the young people, but for the parents. and that is that, you know, you can be successful following a blueprint for success, okay? Give me a blueprint for success and I shall succeed. That's the attitude of many, adopted by many young people because their parents want them to be successful. And so there is always a blueprint for success, but you can succeed breathtakingly more if you deviate from that blueprint and go after what you are interested in, what you're curious about. Pick something, pick anything and focus on it and don't be driven by anything other than just pushing the frontiers of knowledge.
And, and once you do that, the opportunities multiply, okay? The other thing is don't be afraid to do the experiment. The experiment is how we access facts. And there's nothing worth doing without facts.
So focus on the facts, focus on the substance and the experiment, and never be afraid to do the experiment. It’s everything. It’s the gateway to discovery. It's the gateway to all the excitement that one can have in their life.

Ilham Kadri: Thank you so much for this fantastic conversation, Omar. I once again want to congratulate you on receiving the Ernest Solvay Prize, which is much, much deserved. You are the perfect example of how curiosity, courage, creativity, and determination have changed the world for the better, which is exactly what we love to stand for.
And what I will take away from this fabulous conversation is that we shouldn't fear but embrace the impossible and experiment, right? For the chemist I am, this is music to my ears, and focus on the facts and, and go beyond. So it was such a pleasure speaking to you, Omar. Thank you.

Omar Yaghi: Thank you, Ilham. This has been a pleasure and an honor. To be a recipient of this prize, but also to be interviewed by you.


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