Supporting a Bigger Us

  • DOI: 10.1002/chemv.202000086
  • Author: Vera Koester, Sir Fraser Stoddart
  • Published Date: 24 September 2020
  • Copyright: Wiley-VCH GmbH
thumbnail image: Supporting a Bigger Us

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Sir Fraser Stoddart, Northwestern University, Evanston, IL, USA, 2016 Chemistry Nobel Laureate, and best known for his pioneering research on molecular machines, was awarded a Chemistry Europe Fellowship earlier this year [1,2]. Every two years, Chemistry Europe honors chemists for their outstanding support for and contributions towards the European joint publishing venture. Chemistry Europe is a partnership of 16 European chemical societies that owns a family of high-quality chemistry journals.

Here, Sir Fraser speaks to Dr. Vera Koester for ChemistryViews about his 1991 dream of a European journal of chemistry, the importance of internationality for science, as well as formative moments in his life.



What is now called Chemistry Europe was founded 25 years ago with the creation of Chemistry—A European Journal as a pan‐European chemistry journal. It is owned by chemical societies who merged their national journals. How do you remember those times?

I was a supporter of getting chemistry to be a European-based activity. I was also a huge supporter of the launching of Chemistry—A European Journal. This goal was my mission in the late 80s and early 90s when I was still in the UK.



It is said that you wrote in a letter in 1991, “I keep dreaming about the European Journal of Chemistry” [3].

That’s true. The one thing that left me a little disappointed was that, for some crazy reason, it couldn’t just be called the European Journal of Chemistry. A good friend had the same idea and decided to patent the name. I think that was one reason why we ended up with Chemistry—A European Journal for better or for worse.



What was your motivation to advocate for a European journal?

Science is international. A lot of my close friends in the field of supramolecular chemistry in the 80s were distributed across Europe. People like Jean‐Marie Lehn and Jean-Pierre Sauvage in France, David Reinhoudt in the Netherlands, the late Fritz Vögtle in Germany, Rocco Ungaro and Vincenzo Balzani in Italy, Javier de Mendoza in Spain, and so on. They were my buddies, if you like. I was very much a European at heart and I am still more than ever hopeful that there will be a United States of Europe one day.

I hail from Scotland. The Scots have had for centuries an attitude towards their small position on the globe of being much larger than just a little country. I was brought up, not to think in an inclusive way about a very small group, but to think on a larger scale. Today I look upon myself as an international citizen.

I had published a lot of my research in Angewandte Chemie during the 1980s. It came to a head with the publication in October 1989 of a donor/acceptor catenane [4]. I believe it was regarded as a seminal paper in the chemistry of the mechanical bond and was a forerunner to research on molecular switches and machines. It was probably, many years later, one of the reasons I received the invitation in 2016 to go to Stockholm. I took quite a lot of criticism for not supporting ‘us,' that is, the UK chemical establishment. I felt this criticism was misplaced and that we should be supporting a much bigger ‘us.' That bigger ‘us’ was the European chemical community where I was made to feel welcome and at home.



Where do you see national scientific societies in today’s world?

I am a member of seven or eight national scientific societies, and I do not serve any of them well, simply because I am so thinly spread in so many different directions. Nowadays, as I have already said, I'm an international citizen. Some 30 years ago, there was an amazingly successful attempt in Europe to bring the European journals in chemistry together. If there was a similar attempt to bring learned societies together on an international scale it might help in addressing issues like climate change, but for now, it's a dream; I just do not see it happening in the short term.

We live in a global village. Since the arrival of the coronavirus, we cannot simply look upon ourselves as citizens of small countries or big ones. Ironically, it is the big countries who are the ones that are struggling during this pandemic. Yet the peoples in these countries, big or small, need to get the message that the solutions to global crises will only come from cooperation between nation-states. The reluctance to collaborate at a continental and international level is my biggest disappointment at the moment. It seems that we are heading more and more into clans and don’t want to express ourselves beyond very small insular groups. This development saddens me.



How important do you think it is to communicate chemistry in national languages? For example, to be better understood by the general public.

I am always embarrassed by the fact that I only ever really got my mind and vocal cords round one language.

Yes, I see your point that, with peoples across Europe speaking many different languages, if we have to reach out in chemistry, it needs to be addressed by having discussions and producing articles in a whole gamut of different languages. In particular, articles in what is called the front-half of journals, essays, and so forth, could be made available to the general public on open access.

But what do I predict is going to happen language-wide in science? I think the days of English being the dominant scientific language are numbered. The leadership, which has been centered for many decades in the US, is going to China. China is going to have such a hold on research and the advances in chemistry that Mandarin, I forecast, in 50 years’ time, maybe much sooner, will become the language in which chemistry – and other sciences, but we are talking about chemistry – will be communicated. I do not see why, when they become ultra, ultra dominant, the Chinese would wish to still struggle with coming to terms with the English language.

The situation will become worse, because I think we are going to enter a stage where there are young Chinese who are less able to come to the US, for example. There is a man presently in the White House who is trying to make this kind of movement extremely difficult for the Chinese and others from foreign countries. I have a large number of Chinese researchers in my group at the moment. They are not happy because they are being treated in a reprehensible way. They worry on a day-to-day basis about their families back home in China. This treatment will come back to haunt the America one day. The Chinese will not forget the uncertainty and misery an American administration brought into their personal lives.

I believe that many young Japanese chemists came to the US in the period after the Second World War. It is not the case anymore. The Japanese are strong enough in chemistry to maintain their own excellence and leadership in the field. So what has happened in Japan, I think will happen in China as well. It’s just a matter of time.

So to summarize, English might remain the dominant language in science for some time to come but I feel its days are numbered. I have three half-Chinese grandsons and if they ask me for advice I say, you should be learning Mandarin. And they are!



How did your interest in chemistry start?

I was brought up on a farm in Scotland a few miles south of the capital, Edinburgh. I became fascinated in the growing of plants and of animals. So you might think to begin with that I would want to be a biologist. Also coupled with taking care of plants and animals was the fact that there was an incessant arrival on the scene of gadgets, implements, and machines. So I often say I was this combination of a biologist and an engineer as a young boy being brought up on a mixed-arable farm.

My interest in chemistry started quite traditionally. I had three outstandingly good chemistry teachers at my high-school in Edinburgh. They were an interesting trio. The eldest of them was a man from the West coast, so he had been, I guess, schooled in Glasgow. He was a high-quality and passionate scientist. Then we had a woman from the Outer Isles. I am sure she could speak Gaelic, but we never tested her knowledge for none of us could speak Gaelic. She was someone who make sure that you took on board the topics that she would be talking about. It was no-nonsense with her. We had a nickname for her: Thuggy Bain. That name tells you that she was a very strong disciplinarian. And then we had a young graduate from Edinburgh University itself. This trio taught chemistry to young boys like myself in a mixed and complementary manner.



What excites you about chemistry today?

I am as excited about chemistry today as I was 50-odd years ago. Although I think I did not, of course, in the beginning, realize what chemistry was about in its deepest sense.

I began to realize that chemistry is unique amongst the sciences since it allows one to create its own object – the famous statement by Marcellin Berthelot in 1860. And that, according to him, makes it different from, in present-day language, biology and physics. When that penny dropped, I am not quite sure. It must have been sometime roundabout when I was a postdoctoral fellow in Canada or during my early days as a lecturer in Sheffield. I thought: “Wow. The sky is the limit. I can do anything in chemistry because I can create my own object in much the same way as a painter paints a picture, a sculptor carves out a statue, or a composer produces music." When I appreciated these analogies, that is when I got really hooked on chemistry.

Ironically, I did not have the skillset or the desire to get involved in natural product chemistry, despite the fact that I had been brought up on a farm, growing crops. I wanted to be able to design my own molecules and then make them. The more abstract and the more artificial they looked, the happier I was. I call it unnatural product synthesis. Despite an early research training in carbohydrate chemistry, it was this creative aspect of chemistry that eventually drove me to do research in what is now known as supramolecular chemistry.

There was one incident during my time at university as an undergraduate student that I often quote as probably being a defining moment. It was in my third year. It was 1963, and one of the lecturers who was running a practical class in quantitative analytical chemistry, had about 150 of us or more together in a large lecture theater giving us an introduction to the practical course.

He said two things that stopped a rowdy bunch of students in our tracks and brought a hush to the lecture theater. His first statement was: “You will be pipetting with your open mouth enough cyanide to kill the whole of Edinburgh.” There was complete silence.

His next rejoinder was a rather arrogant one. He said: “I devised this course several years ago now. No one has ever finished it in the ten weeks available." I thought: this cannot be: it has to be possible. I was coming from a mixed-arable farm where almost every domestic animal and bird, as well as grain and root crop, that would grow in that part of the world was happening the year round. My parents and I were tackling during the height of the summer six, seven, eight, nine, jobs a day. So I used the multitasking I had learnt on the farm in the laboratory. The other students in the class did the experiments in series. They'd do one experiment, then the next and so on while I was doing three or four at a time. I finished in seven weeks with full marks.

This feat turned everybody’s head including the lecturer's. He sent me to the office of Professor Sir Edmund Hirst to receive his congratulations. I was offered the opportunity to work in the lecturer's laboratory during that summer for a small stipend. For an undergraduate student, this opportunity to get into a research lab was manna from heaven. I was so happy and I knew right away that research in chemistry was what I wanted to do for the rest of my life.



You are very active on Twitter and you are also very open to talking with students and young scientists. What is your motivation for doing so?

My motivation for treating students and young scientists with the utmost respect goes back to when I returned from Canada, where I had experienced an enormous amount of freedom to do my own research as a postdoctoral fellow.

My mentor, Professor J. K. N. Jones at Queen’s University, had decided to go to Brazil for a whole year during this period. There was no email in the 1960s. There were Air Mail letters, which would take about six weeks to go between Brazil and Canada until the Canadian Postal Service went on strike and all communication came to a halt ... I had my lab mates and a young professor, Walter Szarek, who took me under his wing, but I had the freedom to do my own thing in research

Then I returned to Sheffield in the UK and found that I had walked into a hornet’s nest. The Chemistry Department was very much under the hierarchical control of four professors. The 70s and 80s were difficult years for me. Day-to-day bullying was the practice. I don’t think the senior academics who were involved in what I felt was bullying saw it as such. It was the norm. I decided that there was no way I was going to carry this toxic culture forward into my later years in academic life.

When I got the opportunity to go to Birmingham in 1990 as a professor, I found it ironic that the non-professorial academic staff in the hierarchical UK academic system wanted to be told what to do by me! So I came to the conclusion that there was no escaping within this system in the UK at the time. It was one of the many reasons I decided to move in 1997 to the US where the academic system is much more horizontal. I have had no regrets. I had a marvelous decade at UCLA. My last 13 years at Northwestern University (NU) have been equally wonderful. The faculty in the Chemistry Department support each other and our graduate students and postdocs ‘hunt in packs.'



Thank you for this wonderful conversation.

Sir Fraser Stoddart
, born 1942 in Edinburgh, UK, obtained his Ph.D. from Edinburgh University, UK, in 1966. After postdoctoral work at Queen’s University, Canada, he became a Lecturer in Chemistry at Sheffield University, UK. In 1990, he moved to the Chair of Organic Chemistry at Birmingham University, UK, and was Head of the School of Chemistry there from 1993 to 1997 before moving to the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), USA, as the Saul Winstein Professor of Chemistry in 1997, succeeding Nobel Laureate Donald Cram.

In 2002, Fraser Stoddart became the Acting Co-Director of the California NanoSystems Institute (CNSI), Los Angeles, CA, USA; in 2003, the Fred Kavli Chair of NanoSystems Sciences; and served from then through August 2007 as the Director of the CNSI. Since 2008, he has been a Board of Trustees Professor of Chemistry at Northwestern University, Evanston, IL, USA.

Fraser Stoddart was awarded jointly with Jean-Pierre Sauvage, University of Strasbourg, France, and Bernard L. Feringa, University of Groningen, The Netherlands, the Nobel Prize in Chemistry "for the design and synthesis of molecular machines". Among other honors, Fraser Stoddart received the Albert Einstein World Award of Science in 2007 and was appointed a Knight Bachelor in the New Year's Honours List in 2006, by Queen Elizabeth II.

Fraser Stoddart developed a rotaxane with two identical recognition sites for a ring in 1991. He called it a molecular shuttle. He demonstrated that the ring on the axle of a dumbbell was able to move back and forth along the axle between the two recognition sites. Based on bistable variants of this rotaxane, Fraser Stoddart went on to develop, for example, a molecular lift, a molecular muscle, a molecule-based computer chip, a molecule-based drug delivery system and ultimately molecular machines, in particular, molecular pumps.




[1] Nobel Prize in Chemistry 2016, ChemistryViews 2016.
[2] Chemistry Europe Fellows 2018/2019, ChemistryViews 2020.
[3] Peter Gölitz, Cutting a Gordian Knot: The Founding of Chemistry—A European Journal, Chemistry – A European Journal 2020, 26, 9–10.
[4] Peter R. Ashton, Timothy T. Goodnow, Angel E. Kaifer, Mark V. Reddington, Alexandra M. Z. Slawin, Neil Spencer, J. Fraser Stoddart, Cristina Vicent, David J. Williams, A [2] Catenane Made to Order, Angew. Chem. Int. Ed. 1989.




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