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Nobel winner says risk is key to progress

Heeger

Alan J. Heeger most certainly believes in taking risks. And in his case, risks have certainly paid off: He was co-winner of the 2000 Nobel Prize in Chemistry.

As part of a two-day visit to campus this week, Heeger, professor of physics and materials at the University of California, Santa Barbara, shared advice on how to turn risks into successes during his talk, “Risk and Innovation in Science—A Personal History: The Route to the Nobel Prize” on Monday.

Heeger, who has been credited with making discoveries that led to the development of plastic electronics, told a packed Packer Auditorium that “a great risk can result in a great gain.”

The Nobel Prize in Chemistry was awarded to Heeger “for the discovery and development of conductive polymers.” Heeger and his colleagues have studied semiconducting and metallic polymers, otherwise known as the “Fourth Generation of Polymer materials,” for more than 30 years.

When their study began in the 1970s, the information was poorly characterized. Yet, by understanding a simple structure centered on hydrogen and carbon, Heeger and his team have come to understand the doping of conjugated polymers and as a result, there have been several significant discoveries over the years.

The importance of an interdisciplinary approach

Heeger said winning the Nobel Prize in Chemistry changed his life, and even today, as he recalls the events accompanying the honor, he is emotional. The ceremony where he was awarded his personalized diploma, the lavish banquet with more than 1,400 guests, signing a book with other great science names—all were spectacular, he said.

Heeger also emphasized the importance of viewing science as an interdisciplinary study during his talk, an attitude he credited with playing a critical role in his success. Though Heeger began his scientific career as a physicist, his interests led him to tackle chemistry and currently, he is expanding his knowledge into the field of biology.

Since he won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry, the link between science and technology has remained at the forefront of Heeger’s research. Although he recognizes that his risks are riskier these days because more people are aware of his work, he remains grounded in the notion that it is essential to not lose the sense of excitement that leads to great breakthroughs.

It’s important to choose the projects that are most likely to lead in new directions and toward new discoveries. “As in most areas of human endeavor, ‘good taste’ in the choice of problems is the key to progress,” Heeger said.

Currently, Heeger is exploring opportunities and applications for a new generation of electronics, and he is involved in the start-up of two new hi-tech companies. He also has his eyes set on polymer solar cells, which he sees as having great potential in the future.

--Blair Tapper

Posted on Wednesday, February 09, 2005

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