Marcel Mayor, Professor of Chemistry at the University of Basel

2014-12-141209113023-DSC09498_FotorMarcel Mayor is a chemist through and through. He is fascinated by chemical compounds, especially by those that do not exist yet or have unusual structures and need years to be synthesized. His goal is to achieve a great complexity and to discover new things using a variety of chemical compounds. His work is also strongly influenced by co-operations with physicists, as they need tailor-made molecules with certain chemical and physical properties. In addition to scientific research, Marcel Mayor is also involved in research management activities to support the research community and to guarantee the proper education of young scientists.

Marcel Mayor was born in 1965 in Zurich and grew up in Thun. After he received his high school diploma, he was uncertain if he should focus on physics, computer science, philosophy, mathematics or chemistry. Finally, he decided to study chemistry in Bern, because he felt that in this field he could still discover a lot. However, many of his questions were not answered during his time at university. He had the impression that he did not learn enough about general concepts but instead got to know a collection of exceptions. Nevertheless, when he had successfully completed his studies in 1991, he knew that chemistry was simply the best. He could create matter that did not exist before and could let his creativity run wild. Additionally, for Mayor, chemistry had and still has just the right level of complexity and detail.

Career start in France
After finishing his diploma, Mayor started his PhD thesis under Professor Scheffold in Bern. The work on vitamin B12 derivatives went well, but his supervisor died shortly before the defense. With the support of the University of Bern in this exceptional situation, Mayor was still able to finish his PhD in 1995 without any problems. Supported by a grant from the Swiss National Science Foundation, he began a postdoctoral position with Professor Jean-Marie Lehn at the Louis Pasteur University in Strasbourg working on organic syntheses in combination with electrochemistry. When the fellowship had expired, he continued to work as a research assistant in the same laboratory and concentrated his research on molecular wires. According to Mayor, he enjoyed great benefits from working with the Nobel Laureate: “Jean-Marie has always been very close to research. At least every other week, you could talk to him about your project.” Based on the successful work in the Lehn group, Mayor was offered a position at the College de France in Paris and Strasbourg in 1997.

Establishment of the Institute of Nanotechnology
In 1998, the time had come for Mayor to look for alternatives and new opportunities. He was tempted to accept a job in industry, but was even more enthusiastic to shape the establishment of the newly founded Institute of Nanotechnology at the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology (KIT). “It was a great time,” Mayor recalls. “It was a bit like Big Brother for scientists. Physicists, chemists and material scientists were gathered in containers. We had strong financial support, but all disciplines were represented in subcritical quantities – so that we simply had to work together.” These collaborations were very fruitful and led to worldwide acknowledged publications and prizes.

After successful habilitation at the University Louis Pasteur in Strasbourg in 2005, Mayor had several options to choose from. Professor Hans-Joachim Güntherodt had become aware of the young chemist and wanted him at the University of Basel. For Mayor, Basel was attractive due to the excellent quality of research, the friendly atmosphere among colleagues and the proximity to Karlsruhe and so he decided to move to Switzerland.

Good start at the University of Basel
Since 2005, Mayor has done his research mainly in Basel. He still has kept a small research activity with a few employees at the KIT in Karlsruhe. He explains the background of the double position: “My research happens in part at the interface of experimental physics, which is excellent in Basel. However, due to the size of the institutions, the KIT provides a scientifically much larger and more diverse environment than the one in Basel.” In 2011, his work in Basel got another boost when he was promoted as full professor and the University of Basel generously equipped the Mayor group with new laboratories and resources.

Today, he enjoys being able to pursue his ideas, to have the freedom to live out his creativity and to synthesize molecules that have not existed before and that promise to have interesting chemical and physical properties. It does not discourage him and his staff that the syntheses of these compounds sometimes take several years. For Mayor, a potential application is not the main focus. “It is the mission of universities to conduct basic research and to ensure that we provide an excellent comprehensive education at the forefront of knowledge to young people,” he notes.

Mayor is dedicated to this task and has invested time in research management as well. From 2011 – 2012, he was Dean of Research at the University of Basel and since 2011, he has been a member of the Research Council of the Swiss National Science Foundation.

Professorship in China
Mayor not only supports the education of young scientists in Switzerland and Germany, but also holds a professorship in China at the Sun-Yat-Sen University in Guangzhou (formerly Canton). Approximately twice a year, he spends a week at the Chinese University, which is with its 85,000 students more than six times bigger than the University of Basel. Currently, two Chinese students spend two years of their PhD thesis in Mayor’s laboratory in Basel. In the friendly Mayor team, the two young Chinese scientists will learn a lot about chemistry and will have the chance to get to know the country and people.

With enthusiasm and perseverance to success
As Mayor is engaged in a lot of activities, he does not spend as much time doing sports as he would like to. Nevertheless, he regularly manages to participate in the Inferno-Triathlon in his home canton in the Bernese Oberland. During the triathlon as well as in the laboratory during the synthesis of complex molecules, the distant goal can be achieved with motivation, perseverance and the will to succeed.