Professor Sir Fraser Stoddart Professor Sir Fraser Stoddart
Professor Sir Fraser Stoddart

Doctor of Science, honoris causa (2019)

In the world of science, some researchers make amazing discoveries, others solve the puzzles of nature, but it’s those who revolutionise the way of thinking in their fields of study who truly move mankind toward greater understanding of our planet. Well, Sir Fraser Stoddart is one such individual. He has changed the way chemists think about components that move at the molecular level.

Professor Stoddart is a pioneer in molecular mechanostereochemistry. Some 30 years ago, he established a new field in chemistry which focuses on the making of mechanical bonds to produce molecular shuttles, switches and machines. For this work, he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 2016 along with two fellow scientists. The Nobel citation reads: “for the design and synthesis of molecular machines”.

To understand the implications of Professor Stoddart’s work, we must first know something about machines and basic chemistry. Molecules that exist in nature – water, haem, chlorophyll – their atoms are held together by chemical bonds. And machines, as most of us understand, use energy to move mechanical parts to perform certain functions. Professor Stoddart combined these two concepts. So instead of relying on chemical bonds, he synthesised molecules with mechanical bonds, whose component parts can be controlled and, in turn, result in machines at the molecular level. Specifically, he made a molecule called a rotaxane. It is made up of a ring of atoms threaded through another set of atoms configured into a dumbbell shape, upon which the ring can be moved by changing, for example, the acidity. That’s huge because it now means that scientists can use these mechanically interlocked molecules, or MIMs as they are called, to make tiny switches elevators and even produce muscles that expand and contract. This research was pivotal in the development of molecular nanotechnology, be it in electronics, drug delivery systems or even skin care. Yes, Professor Stoddart inspired a line of anti-ageing cream called Noble that lifts like no other!

So what was it that inspired Professor Stoddart to boldly go where no man has gone before in the field of chemistry? Life for Fraser Stoddart began on a farm just outside Edinburgh in Scotland, and his education started in a humble one-room village school before moving to a college in Edinburgh when he was eight and subsequently to the university when he was 18.

His academic career took him to Queen’s University in Canada where he was a National Research Council Postdoctoral Fellow. He then returned to the University of Sheffield in the UK. He began working on mechanically interlocked molecules in the late 1970s at the ICI Corporate Laboratory. He then became a Professor of Organic Chemistry at the University of Birmingham. There, he and his fellow researchers developed molecular shuttles and switches. All this eventually paved the way to Stockholm and the Nobel Prize in Chemistry.

But as Professor Stoddart often tells his students, life is not a bowl of cherries. In 1997, Fraser Stoddart was appointed as the Saul Winstein Professor of Chemistry at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA). Despite his academic success, the move across the pond was, in a way, a response to a setback. His wife, Norma, had developed breast cancer and they moved to Los Angeles in order to benefit from the excellent medical care there. This experience sparked Professor Stoddart’s interest in drug delivery systems and molecular electronics. Now, this is very relevant to supramolecular chemistry because molecular machines are effectively tiny robots that can deliver drugs in a precise manner, right into diseased cells, and release the drugs from within, thereby killing the cells. Professor Stoddart later joined the California NanoSystems Institute and became its Director from 2002 to 2007.

Professor Stoddart was knighted Sir Fraser by Queen Elizabeth II in 2007 for his work in chemistry and molecular nanotechnology and, since he shares his Scottish roots with the actor Sir Sean Connery, he has been mistaken several times for the other James Bond during his days in Los Angeles.

In 2007, Professor Stoddart was awarded the Albert Einstein World Award of Science. He is the recipient of at least 16 world class honours and awards and holds fellowships with more than nine prestigious institutions, including the Royal Society of London in the UK, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in the US, and the Academy of Natural Sciences in Germany. Closer to this part of the world, Professor Stoddart was awarded the title of Foreign Academician by the Chinese Academy of Sciences in 2017.

It is not just Professor Stoddart’s science that stands out, but also his ability to pass his knowledge on to the next generation of chemists. His Twitter profile says he mingles art with science and wears chemistry proudly on his sleeve. You can follow him @sirfrasersays. His research papers are instantly recognisable from his use of colourful three-dimensional diagrams to explain complex molecular structures and chemical reactions. He has effectively made the invisible visible and, more importantly, easily comprehensible to other researchers. More than 500 doctoral students and research fellows have worked under Professor Stoddart, many of whom have gone on to make significant contributions in chemistry and materials science. In 2008, Professor Stoddart joined Northwestern University in the US and was named a Board of Trustees Professor of Chemistry. He is still at Northwestern these days.

As an inventor, Professor Stoddart holds at least 37 patents and has many more pending. Among them, a method to isolate gold from compounds, another to purify petrochemicals and, perhaps the most significant for the marketplace, metal-organic frameworks for use as cosmetics in skin care.

He is also among the most prolific and impactful authors in the world of science today. He has more than 1,150 publications to his name. The Institute for Scientific Information ranked him as the third most cited chemist between 1997 and 2007 and predicted, back in 2003, that he would win the Nobel Prize for his contributions to the field of chemistry.

Professor Stoddart’s friendship with Hong Kong Baptist University (HKBU) began when Dr. Ken C.F. Leung, an Associate Professor in our Department of Chemistry, worked with him in his research laboratory at UCLA from 2003 to 2006. In 2017, Professor Stoddart visited HKBU to share his thoughts at an International Symposium on Nanomachines.

So for someone with so many accolades to accept one more from HKBU, the honour is all ours. But what’s significant here is for a scientist of Professor Stoddart’s calibre to reach out and connect with this part of the world. His experience has taught all of us that diversity goes a long way because, as he puts it, science is global and knows no boundaries.