Winning the Nobel Prize in chemistry generates a flood of phone calls, emails and invitations, which really was not a surprise to Sir. Fraser Stoddart, PhD, one of a trio of chemists who took the 2016 honors.
What Stoddart did find most surprising and gratifying was among all the well-wishes were hundreds of emails and notes from his former students and teaching assistants, not just congratulating him for well-deserved recognition, but also thanking him for his impact on their careers and personal lives.
Stoddart keeps in contact with many former students and thinks of them so fondly that he invited more than 80 of them and their significant others to join him and his family at the awards’ festivities in Stockholm.
“I rented a conference room and threw a big party,” Stoddart said of his time in Stockholm, adding that trimming the guest list was a bit tricky. “There are hundreds of them [former students] and I never forget the experience of working with them—sometimes I spend two-to five years working with them. It is quite a wrench when the day comes for them to leave.”
A change of lifestyle
Stoddart has spent almost half a century on his loves, research and teaching. Currently a professor at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, in the U.S., some colleagues and staff members thought he was deserving of recognition from the Nobel committee for his work on mechanical bonds in molecular compounds (after all, 10 years ago he was knighted by the Queen of England). The university’s press office asked Stoddart in October to update his official biography just in case, but he said he didn’t see the need. Then the phone call came from Stockholm.
“It’s very exciting, very daunting, very demanding… it comes with a lot of surprises,” Stoddart said of the award. “I’m looking at what comes up next. I’m going to China at the drop of a hat to give a speech and have dinner with the prime minister. It changes your lifestyle in a dramatic way.”
A new field of organic chemistry
Stoddart’s breakthrough came in 1981 while he was working at Imperial Chemical Industries in the UK. He is one of a small number of chemists over the past 25 years to have created a new field of organic chemistry — one in which the mechanical bond is a primary feature of molecular compounds, according to Northwestern. “It’s the invention of a new bond that I think is very important,” Stoddart noted. “There are probably thousands of new chemical compounds made every day; not so for new bonds in chemistry; they are few and far between. We have been able to make mechanical interlocking molecules quickly and easily. It means that we can start to look at machine-and motor-like properties.”
Stoddart has been working on these bonds since 1989. The two other Nobel Prize winners in chemistry, Jean-Pierre Sauvage of France and Bernard Feringa of the Netherlands, also work in that field. Stoddart and Sauvage learned of each other’s work, became friends, even “traded children,” as Stoddart put it, hosting each other’s children during summers and published papers together.
It is not just a science, but an art form
While it is a little early to talk about the practical applications of the mechanical bonding of molecules, according to Stoddart, but he envisions progress similar to the evolution of manned flight – steady with dramatic episodes. Only about 100 years have passed from the time of the Wright brothers’ first flight to huge Dreamliners carrying hundreds of people across the skies, he said, so he is optimistic that applications are on the horizon.
“The dream is that there is going to be an explosive development, which will go in many directions to harness the use of these tiny machines. The great thing about chemistry is that it is not just a science, but an art form. You can design and build anything within reason – the invention of the mechanical bond was a large extent driven by interlocked images in the art world.”
“It was total addiction”
Stoddart learned to be innovative a young age; he grew up on a farm south of Edinburgh, Scotland, that lacked electricity until he was 17. “You had to be quite creative in doing anything.” He described his high-school chemistry teachers as excellent and went on to study chemistry at the University of Edinburgh. There one of his professors announced that he had designed a 10-week practical course that no one had finished, so Stoddart promptly signed up. He completed the course in seven weeks by doing three experiments at once. The results led to him being offered a position in a research lab. “Then, it was total addiction,” explained Stoddart. “I could not get away from it. This led to a door opening I was able to walk through.”
I’m 74 years young
Since 2008, he has been a Board of Trustees Professor of Chemistry at Northwestern and also director of the university’s Center for the Chemistry of Integrated Systems (CCIS). During the past 45 years, more than 400 PhD and postdoctoral students have worked with Stoddart and more than 80 now have successful independent academic careers.
“Teaching is extremely important,” Stoddart said of his interconnected vocations. We’re creating quite a legacy in terms of people we’ve trained.” Stoddart also plans to be around working with up-and-coming researchers. “I’m 74 years young, and I’m mapping out what I do for the next five years.”
Photo: Jenny Öhman
Award: Nobel Prize in Chemistry, for work on mechanical bonds
Born: Edinburgh, Scotland
Work: Board of Trustees Professor of Chemistry at Northwestern University (U.S.) and also Director of the university’s Center for the Chemistry of Integrated Systems (CCIS).
Family: Two married daughters, five grandchildren
Education: BSc Edinburgh University 1964, PhD Edinburgh University 1966, DSc Edinburgh University 1980, National Research Council Postdoctoral Fellow – Queen’s University (Canada), Imperial Chemical Industries (ICI) Research Fellow – Sheffield University