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University of Delaware faculty members gathered to discuss the
research and impact of the 2022 Nobel Prize winners, and how it connects
to work at UD.
In what organizers described as a celebration of not only the work
that was awarded this year’s Nobel Prizes but also the depth and breadth
of research and scholarship at the University of Delaware, six UD
faculty members spoke at a Nov. 1 symposium to explain the importance
and impact of the 2022 laureates.
The annual event, hosted by the College of Arts and Sciences for some
15 years, offers interested members of the community an opportunity to
learn more about the prize-winning work than is usually presented in the
This year, those who attended the symposium in the Patrick T. Harker
Interdisciplinary Science and Engineering Laboratory heard faculty
experts discuss topics ranging in time from Russian war crimes occurring
today in Ukraine to the genetic legacies of Neanderthals, an extinct
relative of modern humans who lived in Eurasia until about 40,000 years
ago. The speakers also described award-winning scientific experiments
that have transformed their disciplines, leading to new ways of
simplifying chemical reactions and to support for what a UD physicist
called the “weirdness” of quantum mechanics.
The Nobel Prizes represent “the most important and impactful
research” being conducted, said Eric Wommack, the University’s senior
associate vice president for research, who welcomed the audience to hear
from “this exceptional group of scholars.”
The following are the prizes highlighted at the symposium.
Move this whole section up, swapping places with the section above it.
Bruno Thibault, Edward F. and Elizabeth Goodman Rosenberg Professor
of French Literature, spoke about the French author Annie Ernaux, whose
50-year career as a writer was recognized for what the Nobel
organization called “the courage and clinical acuity with which she
uncovers the roots, estrangements and collective restraints of personal
The media often refers to Ernaux as a novelist, but Thibault said
that’s incorrect. Instead, her books reflect “a kind of hybrid genre”
that mixes fiction and memoir, he said. “She’s always asking how she can
be sure that her memories are correct.”
She has written about such diverse topics as sweeping political and
social changes in France and her own experience with abortion.
Ernaux’s work includes many books, some of them quite short, but she
considers only three of them to be novels, Thibault said. Although she
writes about her life, he said, she insists that her experiences are far
from unique as she pursues “a personal quest for truth and accuracy.”
Her books include The Years, which covers six decades of social and
personal history beginning during World War II and ending in 2006, which
Thibault called her best work. Of her novels, he recommended especially
Do What They Say or Else.
“Ernaux speaks to the brain, but she also speaks to the heart,” Thibault said.
Unless you’re a chemist, you probably don’t often think about
chemical reactions, Joseph M. Fox, professor of chemistry and
biochemistry, told the audience at the Nobel Symposium, but he pointed
out that those reactions touch every aspect of modern life.
“Essentially, everything we interact with has been made or modified
using chemical reactions that were created by people,” said Fox, who is
the director of the Center of Biomedical Research Excellence on
Molecular Discovery at UD, which is funded by the National Institutes of
Health. He went on to explain the work that led Carolyn R. Bertozzi,
Morten Meldal and K. Barry Sharpless to be awarded the 2022 Nobel Prize
in Chemistry for their development of what is called click chemistry and
The Nobel committee, in announcing the awards, said the laureates’
work “is about making difficult processes easier.” Sharpless and Meldal
developed click chemistry, in which molecular building blocks snap
together quickly and efficiently in simple reactions, and Bertozzi has
expanded the use of click chemistry into living organisms.
Sharpless and Meldal independently developed a particular reaction
using click chemistry, which Fox said is extremely versatile and has
gained widespread use, leading to more than 75,000 unique reactions.
“You really can’t overstate the impact of this,” he said. Chemists,
he said, need reactions “that always work [and] that work anywhere.” By
using click chemistry and bioorthogonal chemistry, he said, molecules
that were previously unthinkable can now be constructed.
“We think these reactions will continue to develop into tools capable
of delivering new drugs, creating new materials and answering
biological questions,” Fox told the audience.
Fox’s own work
was noted in the Nobel committee’s scientific background press release
explaining the foundational chemistry behind the prizes, specifically
his group’s 2008 development of a chemical reaction called tetrazine
“Whoever thought that an anthropologist would win a Nobel Prize!”
Karen R. Rosenberg, professor of anthropology, said in beginning her
talk about the 2022 prize in medicine, which was awarded to Svante Pääbo
for his discoveries concerning the genomes of extinct human ancestors
and human evolution.
The award was even more notable, she said, because Pääbo’s work until recently had seemed almost like science fiction.
The Nobel committee, in announcing the award, seemed to reflect
Rosenberg’s sense of wonder about the work, saying that Pääbo had
“accomplished something seemingly impossible: sequencing the genome of
the Neanderthal.” He also, the committee said, “made the sensational
discovery of a previously unknown hominin, Denisova.”
Hominins are today’s humans, known as Homo sapiens, and all our
extinct direct relatives, including Neanderthals and Denisovans.
Neanderthals and Denisovans are considered the closest relatives to
Rosenberg, a biological anthropologist with a specialty in
paleoanthropology, explained some of the many technical challenges Pääbo
faced as he sought to sequence the genome of Neanderthals. After a long
process to obtain tiny samples of ancient DNA and eliminate
contamination, he eventually was able to sequence the entire Neanderthal
In 2008, using a tiny piece of a finger bone from remains found in a
cave in Siberia, he sequenced that genome and discovered a previously
unknown hominin, known as Denisovan. Rosenberg noted that Denisovan was
identified entirely from this genetic work rather than from complete
fossils. “We don’t know anything about them anatomically,” she said.
Pääbo’s work also established a new scientific discipline,
paleogenomics. The genomes he sequenced show that today’s Eurasian
population derives 1% to 4% of its DNA from Neanderthals, Rosenberg
“So there was gene flow” through interbreeding, she said. “Humans
have always been interconnected with gene flow between regions.”
Marianna S. Safronova, professor of physics and astronomy, described
the experiments — called “groundbreaking” by the Nobel committee — that
were conducted by this year’s laureates in physics, Alain Aspect, John
Clauser and Anton Zeilinger.
The three researchers investigated particles that are in what are
called “entangled” states, meaning they act like a single unit even if
they are far apart. For some time, a key question in quantum mechanics
has been how particles can exist in entangled states.
By conducting and refining a long series of experiments, the
laureates explored that question and showed that quantum mechanics
works, Safronova said.
Quantum mechanics, the fundamental theory in physics that describes
the properties and behavior of atomic and subatomic particles, is
sometimes described as strange and counterintuitive. Safronova termed it
“weird” as she explained such concepts as entanglement and the way a
particle can be in two states at the same time. In addition, she said,
quantum mechanics can’t make specific predictions but only gives
The prize-winning research is especially important because, in order
to move forward with emerging computer, sensing and encrypted
communication technology, “Quantum mechanics has to work,” Safronova
This new era of quantum technology is growing rapidly. At UD, for example, Safronova pointed to the new interdisciplinary graduate program in quantum science and engineering.
The program, which offers master’s and doctoral degrees, is designed to
train a “quantum workforce” for what is seen as a technological
The human rights activist and organizations that were awarded the
2022 Nobel Peace Prize are notable for their combined decades of work
and “incredible courage” in recording and resisting human rights abuses,
Polly Zavadivker told the Nobel Symposium.
The assistant professor of history and director of the Program in
Jewish Studies described some of the work done by Ales Bialiatski from
Belarus, the Russian human rights organization Memorial and the
Ukrainian human rights organization Center for Civil Liberties as they
have taken on the tasks of documenting abuses and war crimes from the
time of Stalin to the current Russian invasion of Ukraine.
“The Peace Prize laureates represent civil society in their home
countries,” the Nobel committee said in its announcement. “They have for
many years promoted the right to criticize power and protect the
fundamental rights of citizens. … Together they demonstrate the
significance of civil society for peace and democracy.”
Zavadivker began by discussing the organization Memorial, which was
established in the former Soviet Union in 1987 to ensure that victims of
communist oppression wouldn’t be forgotten. It continues to uncover
information about victims of Stalin and later regimes and to disseminate
that to the public.
“They’ve been doing this work for many decades,” including creating
memorials to millions of previously unknown victims who disappeared,
Zavadivker said. The Peace Prize, she said, is important in
“commemorating these people who are doing the work of memory.”
She went on to talk about Bialiatski, who founded an organization in
Belarus to aid those protesting the authoritarian government. His group
now tracks political prisoners, operating a website and database to give
the public information and “to make it harder for the state to
disappear people,” Zavadivker said.
Bialiatski has been imprisoned for long periods and is currently detained without trial.
The third Peace laureate, the Center for Civil Liberties, was founded
in Kyiv in 2007 to advance human rights and democracy in Ukraine. It
has now shifted its focus to what Zavadivker called “this completely
unprecedented and monumental task” of identifying and documenting
evidence of war crimes during the Russian invasion.
Laurence Seidman, Chaplin Tyler Professor of Economics, began his
talk about the 2022 laureates in economic sciences by outlining the
history of banks and, especially, of the runs on banks that have
occurred in the past when panicked depositors demanded their money back,
often leading to the institution’s collapse.
He described steps that have been taken to avoid such situations,
including the establishment of the Federal Reserve System and, when that
was unable to head off bank failures during the Great Depression of the
1930s, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation.
This year’s recipients of the Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic
Sciences, Ben Bernanke, Douglas Diamond and Philip Dybvig, were
recognized for their research on banks, how to make them less
susceptible to collapse and on how such collapses make financial
Seidman quoted the announcement of the prize, which said that
research conducted by the three laureates has “significantly improved
our understanding of the role of banks in the economy, particularly
during financial crises. An important finding is why avoiding bank
collapses is vital.”
Seidman discussed the 2008 recession, which occurred while Bernanke
was chairman of the Federal Reserve, and noted that, with bank accounts
insured against loss, there were no runs on banks by individual
depositors. But, he said, there was what he termed an invisible or
electronic “run” on Lehman Brothers, the huge financial services company
that abruptly went bankrupt in 2008, contributing to the recession.
“This is still looming over us,” Seidman said of the kind of major
financial collapse like Lehman Brothers, which was not bailed out in
2008. “It can happen again.”
The symposium, an annual event that is free and open to the public,
was launched in 2007 by Doug Doren, now a retired UD administrator and
professor of chemistry and biochemistry.
In recent years, it’s been organized by Karen Rosenberg, professor of
anthropology and director of the Master of Arts in Liberal Studies
program, and John Jungck, professor of biological sciences and of
This article includes information from the Nobel Prize Organization.