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Nobel Laureate Captivates Audience During Centennial Lecture

Last Updated on February 07, 2018 at 12:00 AM

Originally published February 05, 2018

By Pablo Villa

UTEP Communications

When Sir Fraser Stoddart was a young boy growing up on his parents’ farm in Edinburgh, Scotland, he often found himself in precarious situations.

Sir Fraser Stoddart speaks Thursday, Feb. 1, at The University of Texas at El Paso's Undergraduate Learning Center as part of the Centennial Lecture Series.
Sir Fraser Stoddart speaks Thursday, Feb. 1, at The University of Texas at El Paso's Undergraduate Learning Center as part of the Centennial Lecture Series. Stoddart spoke about his life and the work that led to being awarded the 2016 Nobel Prize in Chemistry. He is currently a Board of Trustees Professor of Chemistry at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois. Photo: Ivan Pierre Aguirre / UTEP Communications

The Nobel laureate told an audience Feb. 1, 2018, at The University of Texas at El Paso’s Undergraduate Learning Center that fellow children encouraged him to take risks during his daily excursions outside.

“I was free to run wild with other kids that were there,” Stoddart said, eliciting chuckles from the crowd. “Risk-taking was so highly encouraged that, frankly, it’s amazing anyone lived.”

But what a life it’s been.

Stoddart was awarded the 2016 Nobel Prize in Chemistry after a life devoted to the discipline across two continents. He shared the prize with Jean-Pierre Sauvage and Ben L. Faringa for their work on molecular machines – artificial molecules that can carry out tasks with a small jolt of energy. Stoddart led a team that created mechanically interlocked molecules, such as switchable rotaxanes, which can be used in molecular switches.

He spoke at UTEP as part of the Centennial Lecture Series. Stoddart’s lecture, titled “My Journey to Stockholm,” detailed his life and the work that culminated with the world’s most prestigious award. Stoddart told the audience he was pleased to be spending time in El Paso sharing his story.

“I’m happy to be deep down in Texas, very close to the Mexican border,” Stoddart said. “I’ve had a wonderful time.”

Stoddart said the decision to visit El Paso was easy. He agreed to speak at UTEP at the request of an old friend — Luis Echegoyen, Ph.D., a research professor and the Robert A. Welch Chair in UTEP’s chemistry department. The two met nearly three decades ago in Sheffield, South Yorkshire, England, while they were both working in the field of supramolecular chemistry.

Echegoyen introduced his friend to the crowd. Stoddart had kind words for Echegoyen, referring to him as “one of my scientific heroes.”

Stoddart peppered his speech with other names in the science world that have helped him along the way.

There was Sir Edmund Hirst, Stoddart’s Ph.D. examiner at the University of Edinburgh, where Stoddart earned all his degrees. In 1967, before Stoddart boarded a plane bound for Canada to begin a postdoctoral fellowship, Hirst told his pupil, “Identify a big problem, Stoddart,” a phrase that pushed the eventual Nobel winner to success.

Ernest Eliel, a “stereochemistry giant,” provided the input that led to Stoddart’s first book, “Stereochemistry of Carbohydrates,” in 1971.

Stoddart said he is indebted to Donald Cram, a chemist who shared the 1987 Nobel Prize in Chemistry, for bringing him to his first job in the United States at the University of California, Los Angeles in 1978.

Furthermore, Stoddart referred to Gottfried Schill, a German chemist, as the grandfather of the mechanical bond. Schill’s book, “Catenanes, Rotaxanes, and Knots” became a sort of bible for the future Nobel Prize winner.

Of all the people he named as influences in his life, Stoddart reserved the kindest words for his late wife. Norma Stoddart, a fellow chemist, died in 2004 after a 12-year battle with breast cancer. The couple married in 1968.

“She was a hell of a lot smarter than me,” Stoddart said of his wife. “I don’t know why she married me. She was the love of my life. She was also my fiercest critic.”

Stoddart stressed to the crowd that students are the key to professional success in academia.

“Put your students before yourself,” he said.

He added that finding success in every other facet of life originates from being a respectful person who is always ready to give more then they receive and who is supportive of those around him or her.

Stoddart closed the lecture by describing the day his life changed. A 4 a.m. phone call on Oct. 5, 2016, heralded the news of his momentous honor. Stoddart knew things would be forever altered. But, he joked with the audience, he didn’t account for some of the ways in which those changes would come to fruition.

At Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, where he is the Board of Trustees Professor of Chemistry in the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences, Stoddart bristled at the amount of signage that began popping up on campus bearing his image and acknowledging his high honor. He shared a photograph of a massive banner that adorns the entrance to the building he works in.

“If I want to avoid looking at myself every morning, I could try this door,” he said as he displayed another photograph of a separate entrance to the building, one that also featured a banner.

Stoddart also joked about some of the other perks he was afforded after receiving the Nobel Prize. Northwestern permanently reserved two vehicle parking spaces for him.

“Two cars,” Stoddart said. “I only have one.”

Stoddart described his response to a barb hurled in jest by fellow Nobel winner, Ben Faringa, who bicycles to his job at the University of Groningen in the Netherlands. Faringa teased Stoddart on Twitter about his lack of a need for a reserved space for a vehicle as he instead opted for one for his bike. So, Stoddart requested his own reserved bicycle parking space at Northwestern, which he received. The only problem?

“I don’t have a bicycle,” Stoddart said to laughs.

Joking aside, Stoddart expressed hope that his work can have ramifications in various fields for many years. He also urged the audience to celebrate the diverse population of the world, for the next great idea can come from anyone.

“Diversity pays off, big-time,” Stoddart said. “Science is global. Science knows no boundaries.”