When Sir Fraser Stoddart decided to dedicate his career to “lock-and-key chemistry” back in 1967, he had no idea that his quest might spawn wonders as diverse as precision drug delivery, anti-ageing creams, cyanide-free gold extraction, scratch-resistant phone screens and longer-lasting lithium ion batteries – not to mention a Nobel prize in 2016.
But the best story never told about “molecular machines”, which Sir Fraser helped to design and synthesise, is not some astonishing novel application being cooked up in a lab. It is the self-replenishing “families” of junior researchers who delivered all these marvels.
“I’m talking about families [of] about 35 or 40 people,” Sir Fraser told Times Higher Education’s Research Excellence Summit: Asia-Pacific. “It’s a family that changes every two or three years.
“The most exciting thing about my whole career is the daily interaction with young men and women aged roughly between 18 and 32. There’s always change. There’s always new people coming in. There’s always the heartbreak of seeing the people who have succeeded, for the most part, leaving you.
“This is a huge privilege [for] anybody in research, at least in subjects such as applied chemistry, biology and, sometimes, physics. This is the major part of my life. This is what gives me the most satisfaction.
“In the fullness of time, I won’t be remembered for my research. I would like to think that I will be remembered for my mentorship and the people I launched into careers.”
Sir Fraser, the board of trustees professor in chemistry at Northwestern University in Illinois, said that he had often implored the media to “take on board” this dimension of researchers’ work. “The best I’ve ever got from any journalist is, ‘That could be a story for another day.’ And another day has never come.”
Sir Fraser, 76, said that the mixture of pride and grief that research supervisors experienced as they waved goodbye to departing doctoral students was almost parental. “It’s as if you have conceived 500 children,” he said.
“It’s a very human experience. I’m very close to my two daughters, but I’m just as close in some respects to some of the young men and women who have supported me through difficult times.”
Sir Fraser studied at the University of Edinburgh and worked at the universities of Sheffield and Birmingham before moving to the University of California, Los Angeles in 1997 and then to Northwestern in 2008.
He spoke of the support he received from those he supervised when his wife, Norma, died in 2004 after a 12-year battle with breast cancer. “The way some of these young people stepped into the gap and provided the support that I needed was absolutely amazing,” he said.
“That wasn’t a job that my daughters could do; they were distant and all the rest of it. Young people from Turkey or the United States or China served that role.”
Sir Fraser expressed affection for the young Chinese researchers who comprise about half his current “family” – many of them fresh out of Peking and Tsinghua universities, the country’s top institutions. “They’ve been drawn from 1.4 billion people, so they are extremely talented – and very charming to work with,” he said.
Sir Fraser has a research laboratory supporting young researchers at China’s Tianjin University. While his primary affiliation is with Northwestern, he has begun a part-time appointment at the University of New South Wales, which hosted the THE summit, and he plans to spend three months a year there.
Sir Fraser backed the advice of Australian Nobel laureate Peter Doherty, who last year exhorted fellow scientists not to allow themselves to become “some fuckwit in a white coat”. Professor Doherty said that television journalists invariably sought to film ageing scientists wearing white coats and looking thorough microscopes – things most had done little of for decades.
“I’ve been forced into these white coats one or two times against my better judgement,” Sir Fraser said. “I never feel comfortable because I feel I’m taking over the contributions of the young people who are usually in the lab.
“I haven’t worn a white coat for 40 years. If [the media] want to promote me in this context, let’s make it real; let’s not turn me into a stereotype. The world that wants to report our achievements has very fixed ideas.”
Sir Fraser also criticised a view that “applications are the only thing that matters”. He said that, for university professors, conceiving research ideas that led to applications was “a bit of a sideline”.
“Our first job is to teach young people at the undergraduate and graduate level. [They] express that creativity in research that – serendipitously, more often than not – will lead to applications. Many looking on from the outside, and from the political scene, think research can be planned. It can’t, most of the time.”