Issue Date: March 13, 2017 | Web Date: March 7, 2017
Fraser Stoddart talks about life after the Nobel
Tianjin, China, is as good a place as any to get a sense of how winning a Nobel Prize changes a person’s life. Jean-Pierre Sauvage, Ben L. Feringa, and J. Fraser Stoddart co-earned the chemistry Nobel last October for their work on molecular machines, artificial molecules that can carry out tasks with a little jolt of energy. Stoddart led a team that created mechanically interlocked molecules, such as switchable rotaxanes, which can be used in molecular switches. C&EN recently caught up with Stoddart in China, where he’s a visiting scholar at the School of Pharmaceutical Science & Technology at Tianjin University.
At an event held in Stoddart’s honor, local reporters, students, and academics vied for his attention, either seeking his opinion, requesting an autograph, or wanting a selfie with the newly minted laureate.
On hand to celebrate Stoddart’s success was his daughter Alison Stoddart and her three young children. “I’ve been trying to organize his inbox because it’s been a bit overwhelming at times,” said Alison, who is the chief editor of Nature Reviews Materials. “A lot of doors have opened for him since he received the Nobel, and I help him focus on what he really should respond to.”
C&EN managed to ask Stoddart a few questions. The following, presented in a Q&A format, is partly the result of those interactions and partly from a presentation and discussion he had with local high school students in Tianjin about his personal and scientific life. Both the questions and answers have been edited for length and clarity.
How has life changed since winning the Nobel?
Northwestern University has put posters of me all over campus. When I enter the chemistry building, I have to push a door with a photo of me on it, which I don’t actually notice anymore. I also have a personalized parking space. Meanwhile, in Washington, D.C., the American Chemical Society headquarters building at one point set up a large banner with my name and face on it on their facade.
Aside from that, this new life has some negative and positive aspects that I try to manage. I’ve been trying to adjust to my new life as a minor celebrity. I have had the great privilege of pursuing my hobby—chemistry—in great facilities with good people for several decades, and now I have the opportunity to meet with presidents and prime ministers. [Stoddart met with then-president Barack Obama at the White House in the U.S. in December, and he met with China’s Prime Minister Li Keqiang in January.]
What was it like to meet with Prime Minister Li?
Before the Nobel, the prime minister of Scotland, where I’m originally from, never asked to meet with me. But I talked with Premier Li last month as if he had all the time in the world.
We met in the Great Hall of the People [a government building used for state dinners and ceremonies]. Premier Li first asked me questions for about 12 minutes in front of everyone who was there. But he was not done with me. He sat next to me at the meal and didn’t eat anything but instead grilled me with questions. He wanted to know what factors in my life led to my success and also what China could and should do to foster great people. China is looking for “best practices.” The country is now supportive of what’s called “blue sky” research [curiosity-driven science], and I really like this. Scotland, with a much smaller population than China, has generated three chemistry Nobelists out of about 170 ever awarded. So China has a lot of potential to foster great scientists.
You speak your mind on many topics. But, compared with Western countries, China restricts freedom of speech and opinion. Do you think China can really attract and develop great scientists?
Well, you can see that scientists in the U.S. are starting to be restricted in what they can say, so the difference is not as big as it used to be. Restrictions on freedom could be an impediment to creative research, but personally, I have never felt in China any restrictions on what I am allowed to say.
It’s hard to write history as it’s happening, but it’s possible that China [which is seeing thousands of scientists return home after training for years in the West] is a country where creators are now moving to, a bit like Paris in prior centuries.
What can China do to foster great scientists?
I enjoyed going into a lab of my own and doing my own research. It’s important to encourage creativity. You have to leave school wanting to be creative; you need a thirst for discovery.
Scientists should also be free of restrictive metrics on their performance. This is a problem in China, where there’s a big emphasis on publishing many papers in science journals.
Will molecular machines built in the lab ever compete with those made by nature (such as kinesins that transport cargo in cells)?
Yes. It will happen in a few decades, and it will bring about a new Industrial Revolution. It will be mind-boggling. In much the same way as airplanes today exist comfortably alongside the birds and the bees and the bats, artificial molecular machines will exist seamlessly alongside nature’s pumps and motors. Switchable rotaxanes have already been mounted on the surfaces of mesoporous silica nanoparticles to act as drug-release nanovalves in an attempt to develop controllable drug delivery systems for use in the fight against cancer.
What do you think your legacy in chemistry will be?
My legacy will not necessarily be my chemistry, which has been described in more than 1,000 publications—too many! It will be the more than 400 graduate students and postdoctoral fellows whom I have trained and mentored. Almost 100 of them have gone on to be professors in their own right in universities all around the world, while many more have gone into industry, government, finance, and publishing. It will be the young people I have trained who will be my legacy, particularly if they listen to my plea to tackle a big problem in science and not to continue doing “Stoddart chemistry” under any circumstances. Some heed my advice, and some ignore it.
CORRECTION: This story has been updated to correct the month when J. Fraser Stoddart co-earned the 2016 Nobel Prize in Chemistry with Jean-Pierre Sauvage and Ben L. Feringa.
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