Biochemist Richard Neutze wrote one of last year’s best scientific articles in the world, according to the renowned journal Science. He was also appointed ‘Swedish science hero of the year’ by the Swedish newspaper Dagens Nyheter. Born on a sheep farm in New Zealand 43 years ago, he ended up in Sweden following a series of coincidences.
Richard Neutze wanted to become a researcher already as a 3-year-old.
‘As a child, I thought math was easy. I thought of it as solving a geometric puzzle, and that’s how I still look at it. I think visually, including when I work, even though biochemistry is not very visual.’
Neutze’s family is from Germany, but his great-grandfather moved to New Zealand and became a sheep farmer. His parents were sheep farmers too, but encouraged their four children to get a solid education. He studied physics and finished his PhD in 1995 at the University of Canterbury, New Zealand. It was around this time that one of the first coincidences that would shape his life occurred.
‘If you look at people’s lives, you often see that many of their decisions are the results of coincidences and unexpected events. Some people act on those random moments and others don’t.’
He feels that the major decisions are often the results of things we cannot fully control.
‘For example, I met the scientist Janos Hajdu pretty much by accident. We drank coffee together when he visited a friend at Canterbury. That meeting changed my direction in life completely.
NEUTZE decided to do a short postdoc with Hajdu at Oxford University, and he changed fields from physics to biophysics. After Oxford he did another postdoc, this time at the University of Tübingen, before reconnecting with the research team led by Hajdu, who in the meantime had become a professor at Uppsala University. And in Sweden he met his wife Helena, who has a PhD from Karolinska Institutet and works at Astra Zeneca.
‘Had I not been available that afternoon when Janos stopped by at the University of Canterbury, my life would most likely have been very different.’
In 2000 he moved his research to Chalmers University of Technology, and in 2006 he was appointed professor in biochemistry at the University of Gothenburg.
Neutze has published an impressive number of papers with his research team at the University of Gothenburg, and has also received a large number of awards.
‘But I think the next 5-10 years will be the most productive in my career.’
HIS WISH IS TO help solve some major problems. His team is currently studying photosynthesis and the possibility of creating an artificial version of it. Such a discovery could help solve the world’s energy problem, which would certainly be a tremendous achievement.
The other major problem he would like to help solve is vastly different in nature. He believes that the functioning of brain cells at the molecular level and the mechanisms behind human consciousness and self-awareness will be this century’s most important research field.
‘As a scientist, you have to believe that consciousness and self-awareness have something to do with chemistry. It’s my hope and goal that my team will be able to contribute in this field,’ says Neutze.