Eyes on the Prizes
An Edinburgh alumnus who supports PhD students through an annual prize is celebrating himself after winning the Nobel Prize for Chemistry.
Sir Fraser Stoddart’s connection to Edinburgh goes back to his childhood, having been born in the city and raised in nearby Gorebridge. After obtaining a BSc from the University in 1964 he went on to complete a PhD two years later before starting his academic career at Queen’s University in Ontario.
A return to the UK saw Sir Fraser become renowned as one of the world’s greatest chemists and a leading expert in nanotechnology – the science of the very tiny – the area which has led to his latest achievement.
The Nobel Prize, shared with Sir Fraser’s colleagues Jean-Pierre Sauvage and Bernard Feringa, has been awarded for the design and production of molecular machines. In work that has spanned over 30 years, the trio has developed tiny molecules with controllable movements which can perform a task when energy is added. Imagine tiny lifts, miniature artificial muscles and miniscule motors capable of performing the same tasks as their larger counterparts. The implications of such miniaturisation of machines and technology is both immense and exciting, comparable to the development of electric motors in the 19th century.
Mini machines: A Timeline of Development
We’ve already seen how the development of computing caused a revolution in technology in the late 20th century. Now miniaturisation promises to be equally impactful. We break down the steps taken by Sir Fraser and his fellow chemists towards Noble Prize glory:
Normally molecules are joined by strong covalent bonds in which the atoms share electrons. But Jean-Pierre Sauvage linked two ring-shaped molecules together to form a chain which was linked by a freer mechanical bond. This allowed the molecules to move relative to each other, something that is essential for machines to be able to perform a task.
Next, Sir Fraser developed a rotaxane by threading a molecular ring onto a thin molecular axle to show that the ring was able to move along said axle. Through this, he was able to develop a molecular lift, a molecular muscle and a molecule-based computer chip.
Following Sir Fraser’s developments, Bernard Feringa became the first person to develop a molecular motor. He did this by getting a molecular rotary blade to spin continually in the same direction. Using this technology, he has been able to rotate a glass cylinder that is 10,000 times bigger than the motor itself, and famously designed a nanocar – a molecule-sized four-wheel-drive.
Scientists at the University of Manchester used the components developed by Stoddart, Sauvage and Feringa to create a molecular robot capable of grasping amino acids and stringing them together, mimicking ribosomes (the natural cell structure that makes protein).
“Many congratulations to Professor Sir Fraser Stoddart on his Nobel award. We are delighted by this news, which is wonderful for the School of Chemistry and the wider University. There is a huge sense of pride that someone who began his career studying at Edinburgh has gone on to make such a huge impact in the field.”
Professor Colin Pulham, Head of the School of Chemistry at the University of Edinburgh
Sir Fraser’s relationship with the University of Edinburgh did not end after graduation. He has maintained a close bond with his alma mater, in particular the School of Chemistry, resulting in the establishment of the annual Fraser and Norma Stoddart PhD Prize in 2013.
Named for Sir Fraser and his wife, scientist and Edinburgh alumna Norma Stoddart, the prize is awarded to a PhD graduate who has shown not only excellence in research, but has also contributed to the life of students within the School while also providing a catalyst for further philanthropic support of students in the School. The first recipient was research fellow Dr Olof Johansson.
“I was awarded the first Fraser and Norma Stoddart PhD Prize in 2013. Sir Fraser personally presented the award to me and it was a great honour to have met him. During the ceremony he was very encouraging and inspired me to excel in my research career. The prize is awarded to students that, in addition to demonstrating superior research accomplishments, have contributed to the life of students within the School of Chemistry and beyond. Sir Fraser’s generous donation towards establishing the annual prize is itself a great contribution to the School, and I will always remember the special day when he presented the award to me.”
Dr Olof Johansson
The Chemistry Matriarch: Norma Stoddart, 1944 – 2004
In tribute to a working life dedicated to nurturing young academics, it is more than fitting that Sir Fraser’s annual prize also bears the name of his wife.
Edinburgh-born Norma Stoddart (nee Scholan) was educated at the Mary Erskine School before deciding to read Chemistry at the University of Edinburgh. She graduated top of the class in 1966, the beginning of a remarkable research career that saw her transferring to the Medical School to obtain her PhD in 1969 with a thesis on ‘The Hydroxylation of Cholesterol by Rat Liver’, before carrying out some years of postdoctoral research, firstly at Queen’s University, Ontario and then the University of Sheffield.
After taking a decade out of academic life to raise her family, Norma returned to research activity as part of her husband’s research groups in Sheffield, Birmingham and UCLA, spanning a 20 year period and becoming renowned as the nurturing matriarch for the group’s aspiring young scientists, many of whom went on to secure vital leadership positions in academia and industry around the world.
Norma was also responsible for organising a string of international conferences, including 1994’s Royal Society of Chemistry International Symposium on Molecular Recognition Processes in Birmingham, a milestone event that attracted over 400 delegates
The Fraser and Norma Stoddart PhD Prize: the Winners
- 2013 – Dr Olof Johansson: the Royal Society of Edinburgh/BP Trust Research Fellow whose interests lie in using nanotechnology to progress next generation electronics and information storage devices.
- 2014 – Dr Anne Thielbeer: she is now working in industrial research and development in Austria, including that of inkjet inks for food packaging, medical applications and 3D printing.
- 2015 – Dr Martin Ward: his research interests lie in crystal nucleation, the process that begins the transformation of a liquid, vapour or solution into a crystal.
- 2016 – Andrew Maloney: He is an applications scientist at the Cambridge Crystallographic Data Centre and co-chair of the European Crystallographic Association Young Crystallographers group.
“We are delighted at the news of this Nobel Prize award and congratulate Professor Fraser Stoddart on his achievement. The University of Edinburgh can be justifiably proud that he has built upon his education at this University to reach the top of his profession. His enthusiasm to communicate his subject beyond the academic community has inspired future generations to consider the amazing possibilities of scientific research.
We have maintained a warm relationship with Fraser over the years and he, in turn, retains an obvious affection for his home city and this university - only in April he visited our School of Chemistry to present the Fraser and Norma Stoddart PhD Prize, which recognises excellence in research. For someone who has given so much to others throughout his career, we are thrilled that his work is being celebrated at the highest level."
Professor Sir Timothy O’Shea Vice-Chancellor and Principal, The University of Edinburgh