I woke up this morning and couldn’t exactly remember what had happened last night. I tried to piece together the bits of information that were coming back to me but there was just so much missing. Good thing that I wrote everything down. Let me take you back to when it all started. During orientation week, thousands of college societies set up in a big auditorium so that every student has an opportunity to explore their interests. Various societies include Sports Clubs, A capella, Harry Potter Society, Philosophy Society, and my personal favorite, the Scientific Society. I signed up for a few different societies and on Monday I received an email about different lectures that the Scientific Society holds throughout the year. This week’s seminar was to be given by Ian Fleming. There are probably many Ian Flemings in the world, but two of them particularly ring a bell in my mind. The first is the English author that wrote the James Bond novels and the second is the man who appears in all of my organic chemistry textbooks. Since this email was from the Scientific Society, I presumed that the organic chemist was coming to Oxford. For those of you that have never heard of Ian Fleming, he is one of the most important organic chemists of the 20th century. He was the first person to determine the full structure of chlorophyll in 1967, he helped synthesize vitamin B12 during a one year postdoc at Harvard, and he created a mechanism (Silyl-Hydroxy Conversion, also called the Tamao-Fleming reaction) that is used in many organic chemistry research labs today. He also did all of this at a time when there were not accurate ways of determining chemical products based on computers. Dr. Fleming is included in the panel that nominates Nobel Laureates for Chemistry as well. Simply put, he’s big time.
I jumped at the idea of going to hear this man speak and so I emailed the Scientific Society and told them that I would definitely be attending. An amazing woman, Aimee, who is from Oklahoma and doing her postdoc with her husband at Oxford, responded and asked if I would like to attend dinner with Dr. Fleming before his speech! The simplicity at which you can make things happen via email astonishes me. Within a few hours I went from potentially listening Dr. Fleming speak, to walking to a little dinner with an extreme sense of anticipation as I prepared to meet him. The dinner was at an Italian restaurant off of Banbury road. I have yet to mention the fact that it has been a few weeks and I still can’t get used to people driving on the left side of the road.
I expected that I would be one of about 30 or 40 people at dinner and I would probably introduce myself and eat with some graduate students. When I got there, I couldn’t have been more surprised. Dr. Fleming was sitting with one graduate student having a conversation. I ended up joining them, along with another undergraduate and Aimee and her husband. There were 6 of us in total, including Dr. Fleming, and I can’t even begin to explain how incredible it was. If you want to talk about brilliance, look no further.
I want to share some of the advice that Dr. Fleming gave us throughout the night. First off, he knew he was brilliant, but he didn’t act better than anybody. He is 78, but still quick as a whip. He told us to understand that we are smart, to be thankful for it, and to get better. He also absolutely loves what he does. He simply loves being in a lab, synthesizing organic compounds. “It’s all about the chemistry” he would say. At the time that he was doing all of his research, he couldn’t connect the dots, but random things would come to him later in life that ended up helping him in all of his work. He was asked what makes him see the answers to problems that others have questioned for years and he responded, “My group of colleagues have the ability to think about a problem longer than anybody else. We didn’t know what we were doing, but something would eventually work. We would stare at a problem for weeks and something would click.”
During the lecture, I sat in front of two Ph.D students, one was from Canada and another from France. Before Dr. Fleming started, these students were reciting the periodic table from memory. They knew every element in order, all they way through. At the end of the lecture, the French man said, “Wow, I feel like a schmuck compared to him!” His answers to problems are so simple, but they always work. He says that most answers stare at you, and if you just think a little bit harder, they appear. I ended the night by simply walking home and going to bed. There was so much information that my mind was trying to wrap itself around so I made sure that throughout the night I wrote everything down. My mind had been blown, and it clicked that I was in such a special place with the opportunity to meet one of the most important chemists of the last hundred years.
“All the greatest men are maniacs. They are possessed by a mania which drives them forward towards their goal. The great scientists, the philosophers, the religious leaders – all maniacs. What else but a blind singleness of purpose could have given focus to their genius, would have kept them in the groove of purpose. Mania … is as priceless as genius.”
-Ian Fleming, Doctor No