“Across from you is the Nobel Prize winner,” said Jiin Chen, chair of the National Engineers Week Asian American Engineer of the Year (AAEOY) Award event at the Columbia Tower Club last Friday.
Although I didn’t quite believe what I heard, I still walked to the other side of the table.
“Dr. Ei-Ichi Negishi, you are a Nobel Prize winner?” I asked.
“I am,” he replied.
Dr. Negishi is not only a Nobel laureate in organic chemistry (he just got his last November), he was the only Asian American who achieved the honor in 2010 out of 11 winners. There were two other Asian winners, one from Japan and one from China.
Negishi started to explain to me what his field is. (Dude, I flunked science in high school.) I steered him away from the topic.
Quickly, we discovered common ground. Like me, he was an international student. He came to America from Japan to earn his doctorate degree.
“Would you have achieved Nobel Prize had you stayed in Japan?”
“No,” Dr. Negishi said. “The [Japanese] system is anti-democratic,” said Negishi, who did try to find jobs in Japan after he finished his doctorate from the University of Pennsylvania in 1963.
It was in vain, though. Every job in the universities, from post-doctorate assistants to department heads, was predetermined for someone already in the system, he said. There was no room for outsiders.
“This is wrong,” he said. He said the culture played it too safe, and discouraged risk because mistakes were not allowed.
Nigeshi’s return to America was actually a blessing in disguise.
After being hired as a post-doc researcher at Purdue University, he became assistant professor in 1968, and worked with Nobel laureate Herbert C. Brown. Negishi is the second Nobel Prize winner at Purdue.
Interestingly, the other Asian who earned the Nobel Prize last year was also from Japan, also in chemistry. Nigeshi said, one can do well individually in Japan, but it’s easy to get caught up in the system. In contrast, America’s system focuses on real research, innovation, and has no constraints. ♦