Son of a Mozambican father and Santomense mother, he was considered the scientist of the year in 2019 by the media in Austria where Nuno Maulide lives and teaches Organic Chemistry at the University of Vienna.
Eternal lover of music, he gives recitals and his lectures on science are often accompanied by Johann Sebastian Bach. With two published books and a great sense of humour, he is uncomplicating and deconstructing the complexity of molecules. Now he is preparing to give a new meaning to agriculture, taking advantage of surpluses to create new business opportunities.
How did you come to Austria to teach organic chemistry?
I ended up taking the same route as many researchers. After finishing my degree at the Instituto Superior Técnico, I went to Paris where I did my master’s at the École Polytechnique, completed my PhD at the Catholic University of Louvain and did my post-doctorate at Stanford University. Only then did I apply to start my academic career.
An academic career that started in Germany and then in Austria.
Yes, at the Max-Plank Institute, with a five-year contract that could be extended for two years at a time up to seven or nine years. When this contract ended I applied for a position in Europe, I was not tied to any one country, so everyone was welcome. I had offers from five universities and opted for the University of Vienna which was the best offer. Since 2013 I have a contract until I turn 65.
And in Austria you were considered scientist of the year. Were you surprised?
Yes, I was, it’s a choice award, no one can apply. It is awarded by a group of journalists, experts in science and education here in Austria. And it seems the choice was unanimous. This award is given to the person who best communicates science.
Your parents, both doctors, came from Africa to study in Portugal, did they ever think of going back?
My father was born in Mozambique, he specialised in pneumology and was director of the service at Santa Maria Hospital. My mother, born in São Tomé, was a gynaecologist at the Alfredo da Costa maternity.
As for going back, I believe they were aiming to return to Africa. After graduating in Coimbra they went to Lisbon to specialise in tropical medicine, which wouldn’t make sense if they didn’t want to return and practise medicine in a tropical country. I think it would have been Mozambique, at least until independence, but that didn’t happen and they stayed in Portugal.
Your name has a history.
My name comes from the man who proclaimed the independence of São Tomé, Nuno Xavier, and is the name of the country’s international airport. He was also the first president of the Constituent Assembly of São Tomé. My name is Nuno Xavier because of Nuno Xavier, my mother’s brother, who died in 1976 in a plane crash in unclear circumstances.
When we returned to São Tomé people came up to me because of his name and his family, I got the idea that he was a kind of Dom Sebastião, there was a feeling in the air that with him the country would have reached a better port more time ago.
And did you ever think of going to Mozambique?
I was in Mozambique with my family when I was 15, so it’s time to go back. There was an attempt not long ago that didn’t materialise, but I’m thinking of going there.
My wife is also very curious to see the country. Most of my family are in Maputo and others in Maxixe and Inhambane. I would like to see these relatives again, maybe I can go on holiday.
Back to chemistry, what projects are you working on now?
I’m trying to understand what can be used from the waste, from many agricultural products, to generate economic value. And I’m working on lupins from the viewpoint of Agriculture 2.0. Until now, agriculture has been used to produce food that’s sold.
But here there are many by-products that can generate chemical processes and new industries. In the case of lupins, you can’t eat them as they’re born, because they’re very bitter. After being harvested, this seed goes through a process until it swells up and takes on that beautiful appearance that we know.
It has to be rinsed with water to remove the bitterness – the said bitterness is the result of the action of an alkaloid, a component that can be converted into another alkaloid in a simple way. The end product is sold at prices of up to 100 euros a gram. This return is from the washing waters, that is, essentially we go to the rubbish dump to get the raw material to do business.
If we think about other food products that have identical processes, we are identifying new value chains, thus contributing to the circular economy. Agriculture 2.0 is chemistry looking at agriculture and realising that you can analyse almost anything to get by-products that generate value.
What is the result of putting music and chemistry together?
I always choose music to explain scientific concepts. Starting with music is something intuitive and emotional, I touch people on the emotional side and then go from the heart to the brain.
This is the connection that is missing when talking about science to the general public, people get stuck in the brain and go straight to the intellectual connection. And I believe that to explain science you need a more emotional, more affective approach.
Any composers you particularly like?
Johann Sebastian Bach is the one I like to play the most and I like to listen to a lot too. It’s a music that touches the heart, but when you study it, it touches the brain.
Some people say he was a mathematician, because when you deconstruct many of his compositions it reveals how organised his brain was. So his compositions are perfect for explaining chemical reactions.
And also to explain some chemical reactions he has already written two books.
That’s right. I wrote, first, a book entitled How to Turn Air into Bread. It’s not a book about bread at all! It is a metaphor for a chemical reaction, very successful and fundamental for humanity, which is the reaction that transforms nitrogen, as it exists in the air.
How to Unravel the Puzzle of Life, on the other hand, is a little different. In it I have put together 27 questions about Life and the Universe. People, in general, ask me many questions, by letter and e-mail, and many students also, during the videoconferences I did and still do for many schools. So I thought it would be interesting to gather some important questions and make a kind of chemistry alphabet.