The father of molecular machinery – an evening with Professor Sir J. Fraser Stoddart

Interview and article by Joanna Chustecki and Mel Jack

With thanks to the EPS Community and Alumni Relations Office


A cold autumnal night on campus and something incredible is happening in the Haworth building. Hundreds of students, postgrads, old friends, colleagues and members of the public have flocked to this well-established house of chemistry to hear one of the greatest chemists of our time talk. Professor Sir J. Fraser Stoddart to be exact. Within this huge crowd bustling to access the main lecture theatre stands a man who has published over 1,000 scientific papers, is one of the most cited chemists in the world, and has, on the 5 of October 2016, been awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry ‘for the design and synthesis of molecular machines’.

SATNAV, the College's scientific journalistic society, are extremely excited to be able to share with you our interview with Sir Fraser, where we learnt about his work with molecular machines and heard his side of this incredible story.

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Joanna: So you're back in Birmingham, in the very building you spent time in as Head of the School of Chemistry in the ‘90’s. What moments do you particularly remember about your time at the University?

“I have very happy recollections of being here. This was when a lot of the very important breakthrough work was done. The attitude, commitment and excitement in the group was at its height. We had been provided with a set of newly refurbished laboratories, on the 7th floor of the Haworth Building. The only thing that didn't get refurbished was the toilet. Once the Duke of Kent visited and they had to replace the chain on the toilet with a gold chain – I always remember that incident. Although there were many funny incidents like this one. But I have very pleasant recollections of my time at Birmingham, and surely we would have stayed if my wife's physical condition hadn't begun to deteriorate, but we thought we would get better care for her by going to UCLA. So, there were many factors, but that's what life does to you.”


J: Yes, absolutely. How do you think your time at Birmingham has gone on to influence the rest of your career?

“It has all happened in an incremental kind of way. We had started to make some significant breakthroughs as I left Sheffield, but the move to Birmingham acted as a foot up to take us to the next level. Entering a new academic system at age 55 in the United States, I had to learn a lot of new ropes. For Norma and I, since she was still fit during that early period, it really was a steep learning curve. But because of the great deal of accomplishment and self-confidence gained at Birmingham, the learning curve could be surmounted.”


J: In an earlier conversation, you were speaking about the benefits of travel as a research scientist. Do you think your move from Birmingham to the United States had an impact in shaking up your ideas?

“Oh, yes. But 'chemistry' seems to be different in every different department of every different university I've gone to. And so you meet new people with new takes on what they do in research. At UCLA I met Jim Heath who took me into Molecular Electronics, and I met Jeff Zink who worked on drug delivery systems together with me. I'm a great advocate of change – there might be another change in me yet. I've been at Northwestern for 10 years. One time we counted that the average time taken for me to move is 7 years. I also like looking at different parts of the world, and cultures. I wish I had the gall to move to somewhere like China or Japan, for that would be an even bigger challenge.”


Mel: With a scientific career spanning over 50 years, what within your work and your academic career did you find most challenging?

“The most challenging were the early years. I met a hierarchical system in Sheffield that held me back in my development, I feel. I've no grudges and I don't bear any malice on anyone, it was just a matter of that's the way it was. But the good thing about it was that it left me absolutely determined that I would support young people, through thick and thin, for the rest of my career. I would not model myself on the people who had supposedly been my mentors in the past.”


M: What do you think has been key to your development as one of the world's leading scientists in the field of molecular nanotechnology?

“Many many things. I think it started with me being an only child on a mixed-arable farm in Scotland 12 miles south of the capital. Tucked away, we didn't have electricity until I was 17 years of age, so we had to make do, as you might imagine. And then I was mixing at school in Edinburgh with boys and girls that had all these mod cons. I also saw a revolution in farming that left an impression on me that you must keep moving on. I've therefore taken that over into my life as a researcher: you can't stay still. You've got to be moving on. Every day. Every week. Every year. That's what we do”


J: The Nobel Prize has been awarded to you, Ben Feringa and Jean-Pierre Sauvage for the fundamental discoveries of mechanical bonds being wielded to make molecular machines. What was it that drew you to this area of study? Were the consequences of this technology to the world known to you when you started out?

“I had no image of technological applications when I started out. The driving force was simply to find out if we could do something no one had ever done before. I was never a happy passenger in undergraduate teaching labs, because I knew that these experiments had been carried out for years with hundreds of students each year, so at best you were being trained in techniques. The reason for doing it was not firing me up. It was when I was given the opportunity to look at something for the first time that nobody had done that I really got fired up about research.

The progression to molecular machines was slow, of course, over decades. I wasn't thinking about molecular machines in the ‘70s back in Sheffield, or at ICI (Imperial Chemical Industries). I wasn't even thinking of them through the ‘80s until we published the molecular shuttle in the Journal of the American Chemical Society. And that's when my mind flipped and I could see that we had the basis at least for a switch. I had to fight to keep that statement in the paper at the very end. I think the difficulty in being a creative person is that you've got to take a lot of criticism and a lot of disbelief on the part of your colleagues. They would say "ultimately it's nice but it's exotic, what is it good for?" Well I think, finally, Stockholm have answered that question. It must be good for something, or they would not have recognised it.”


M: I guess you particularly enjoy the creativity that comes with chemistry, although some would think of it as a rather strict discipline.

“They're wrong – it's a highly creative discipline and this was pointed out by Marcellin Berthelot in 1860 when he said “chemistry creates its own object, which distinguishes it from the natural and the physical sciences”. Now, one doesn't want to say that other scientists don't make things either – they do. But in chemistry the core for me is synthesis. So I go on and say making is very very important, followed by measuring, followed by modelling. Three 'M's. You can liken this activity to people who paint, sculpt, or write. It's the same kind of challenge. That is unique to chemistry as a science, I think. I've been likened to J.K. Rowling, for example, and I'm a bit overawed by that comparison. I'm certainly not as rich as J.K! Rowling. But nonetheless, I think therein there is a good reason for a comparison. Do something that you enjoy doing, and one day it will capture the imaginations of many people.”


J: For our current issue, SATNAV are focusing on 'The Science of the Everyday'. Do you believe that eventually this technology will be developed for use in our everyday lives?

“Yes. I was answering a question along those lines after my lecture and I put it in the context of flight. I think it was somewhere around 1927 when things were going very badly wrong. Of course, a few people made it across the Pond – and there were a few successes but there were also a few disasters, sadly. So I think we're going through this phase – not in terms of human suffering, but of getting the science to create good technology. How many years or decades it will take, I don't know, but it's absolutely mind-boggling how being able to control matter down at the sub-nanometre level with the exquisiteness that we know we can is bound to have huge repercussions on developments in information technology and medicine.”


Alumni Relations: With your award and the two in physics this year, that brings the list of Birmingham's Nobel Prize winners up to 11. Why do you think the University has had so many?

“I think the UK in general gets so many because there's something about an island culture that encourages creativity. I think as a nation, we get quite a lot of people thinking out of the box. People who are prepared to take risks. Maybe Japan shares that with us, because of the fact that it's an island culture – and they can be creative while staying isolated from the rest of the world. People leave the UK very simply because there's a common language across the Pond. One level of creativity, is expressed in playfulness and fun; the tendency to even want to break rules, and be a bit awkward at times. I think that surfaces in this British culture extremely well.”


AR: As you mentioned in your lecture, the work that you do still gets you up in the morning and gives you that drive and ambition. What would you still like to achieve?

“I think it's more down to people. From the perspective of Northwestern University who are knocking at the door of having the best chemistry department in the world, a test of their success would be to have our students and postdocs being appointed as Professors in the top schools in America. I’m talking about seeing my students going to Harvard, MIT, Yale, Princeton, Caltech, Stanford, or Berkeley. I want to train as many people as possible, to get them into the most privileged of environments where they have high chances of succeeding to the level of or beyond the level that I have achieved. It makes a difference, being alongside some of the brightest people in the world. I think because I'm more invested in people than in the research as such, I’d like to help people be able to achieve their full potential. But that means staying at the cutting edge of research.”


And continuing the development of some of the chemistry’s most exciting work, staying at the cutting edge of research will be exactly what Sir Fraser, his many students and colleagues will be doing for years to come.

We hope that our readers have enjoyed this interview, as we have hearing Sir Fraser talk about his work. Through his lecture and subsequent interview, we were fortunate enough to able to gain and share an insight into the life of one of the worlds’ leading scientific minds.


Missed the lecture?  Don't worry, it has been recorded in full for your enjoyment: