Saturday, 17 February 2018

Learning from a Laureate

I recently had the privilege of being invited to have lunch with a Nobel Laureate. Professor Sir J. Fraser Stoddart was in Singapore to take part in the Global Young Scientists Summit (GYSS), undoubtedly offering incredible advice and inspiration to many young people in, or hoping to be in, science.

I first saw Sir Fraser give a talk at Nanyang Technological University (NTU), Singapore, in June of 2017 when he was touring the world in the aftermath of the Nobel. I wanted to go not only to see a Nobel Prize winner, but to see a fellow Scotsman and Edinburgh University alumnus in Singapore! My labmates and I made our way to NTU - located in “the wilderness” of Singapore, so inconveniently out-of-the-way for anyone who does not live in the immediate vicinity - in a cab to avoid the heat and humidity of the mid-June afternoon. Despite it not being at all related to our field of work, we all found the talk incredibly fascinating, not just from a chemistry point-of-view but also the life lessons included in the story, and I’m sure everyone in the packed lecture theatre felt the same way.

I enjoyed the talk so much that I made sure to go and see him present again at the ACS Fall meeting in Washington, D.C., which I was fortunate enough to attend as part of my participation in the SciFinder Future Leaders program. This talk was part of a session dedicated to Stoddart’s fellow Laureate, Ben Feringa, who was the recipient of yet another prize. Unfortunately, however, after Stoddart’s opening talk the room emptied as everyone headed outside to catch the climax of the solar eclipse. Poor Ben!
It was in the aftermath of this session that I got the notification that @sirfrasersays had followed me on Twitter. I was over the moon! Ever since his Nobel Prize win, Stoddart has become engrossed in the use of Twitter, and has even been labelled as a “Twitter Monster”, such is his extensive interaction with the social media platform. I had tweeted something in relation to his presentation, and I suppose that brought his attention to a fellow countryman both attending his talk and active on Twitter. I felt I had somehow made it on Twitter at this point – where’s my blue check already?!

In the time since attending the ACS meeting, I continued to tweet in my usual manner – some chemistry stuff, some life stuff, lots of complaining, you know, what Twitter is generally used for – and I was regularly surprised to receive the notification that Sir Fraser was liking and retweeting the occasional tweet. I thought, “how could it be that a Nobel Prize winner somehow finds my random ramblings relatable?” But then I remember that, despite his many achievements and newfound celebrity status, Sir Fraser is also just another human being – a father, a grandfather, a Fraser – who, in his own words, is simply practising his hobby every day. He is another in a long list of scientists who has discovered the fantastic world of social media and realised it’s capability as platform for science communication. It was most likely due to Twitter that he knew I was doing my PhD at the National University of Singapore, and so when he was due to give a talk there, he asked a former postdoc of his – now a professor in NUS – to extend an invitation to lunch with him and some other professors.

I was sitting, almost dozing off, in front of the NMR computer when I received the email invitation. I had to do a bit of a double take when I read it – I mean, was a Nobel Laureate really asking me to lunch with the Dean and Vice Dean of the faculty of science and the head of the chemistry department tomorrow?! I was totally fanboy-ing and couldn’t wait to tell my friends that I’d be meeting a celebrity.
The following day, I dressed up smart and headed to university for 8.30am to get to the venue of Sir Fraser’s talk. I don’t usually dress smartly, and so many people were asking me if I had a presentation to give that day – little did they know I was to be dining with a Nobel Prize winner!
Sir Fraser gave a fantastic talk, titled “My Journey to Stockholm”, filled with both amazing science and fascinating anecdotes from his fantastic 50 years in chemistry and academia. A few of the stories that really resonated with me were those in which he described his fights against adversity and heavy criticism, particularly in his early years.

Following the advice from his mentor from his time as a PhD student at Edinburgh University, he chose to “tackle a big problem” when he became an independent academic. As we all well know now, he is one of the pioneers of the mechanical bond, and what later became known as ‘Molecular Machines’. However, he told of some backlash that he received from his peers in his early days at Sheffield University in the 1970s – how he was told that his ideas were pointless and crazy. Nevertheless, he persisted – for almost a decade – and eventually managed to publish some interesting work in this unknown field. During this time, he was also the first person in the department to hire some foreign graduate students in his lab. In his talk he described how the local students were much too laid back and unproductive, and that the arrival of some hard-working Europeans really kicked them into gear. Funny that. To quote the popular American musical, Hamilton: “Immigrants, we get the job done!” Another example of the ridicule that Stoddart received at Sheffield, he told of one of his local students refusing to do a certain project, saying something to the effect of “I’m not doing that, Stoddart, that’s kiddy science”. One of the Europeans took on the project, and later published an awesome crystal structure on the front cover of the internationally reputed journal Angewandte Chemie. Funny that.
Quote from "Hamilton: The Musical".
(Image from 
Fast forward some years and he has moved across the pond to the USA, after a stint in industry at ICI and then some years at Birmingham University – where he says life was significantly better compared to his torrid time at Sheffield. He first got a position at UCLA, and a few years later he moved to where he is now, Northwestern University in Illinois. Throughout these years, his pioneering work continued, and you only need to look at his Wikipedia page to see how many awards he has received. Of course, the finest reward came in 2016 when he, along with fellow pioneers and collaborators Ben Feringa and Jean-Pierre Sauvage, was awarded to the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for “The Design and Synthesis of Molecular Machines”. So, despite all the ridicule and adversity he received in his early years as a researcher, he beat the odds and won the most coveted prize in all of chemistry – take that, haters!

Following the Nobel win, as is probably to be expected, Sir Fraser was invited by every university you can think of to come and give a talk. At the tender age of 74, you’d think that he’d be selective in where he travelled, keeping the air miles to a minimum and ensuring plenty of rest. But no, according to his own Twitter post, in 2017 he flew around the world 13 times, travelling approximately 330,000 air miles and giving 70 talks / lectures in 15 different countries, including his visit to NTU in June. Incredible! Then, in January, he returned to Singapore for GYSS – and to have lunch with me!
Following his talk, all attendees gathered outside of the auditorium to have some refreshments and have their photo opportunity with Sir Fraser. I bided my time, allowing others their chance to meet and chat with him, knowing full well I’d be getting my chance. I was then ushered along to join the professors to head to the minivan that would be taking us to the lunch venue – the University Club. The first questions Sir Fraser asked me were related to Scotland – where was I from exactly, do I own a kilt with the Fraser tartan (unfortunately I do not, kilts are bloody expensive!) and do I know where the Fraser clan’s roots are. Oh so Scottish, och aye the noo! He later asked what brought me all the way to Singapore and what was student life like here. He seemed very interested in my life story!

A stereotypical Scotsman, and member of the Fraser clan (see: Outlander)
(Image from
Later, at the lunch table, the Head of Chemistry, Prof. Richard Wong, opened the discussion by asking Sir Fraser about his views on so-called “blue skies research” vs. application-based research, the latter being the more common output in Singapore. It was reassuring to hear a Nobel Prize winner – whose molecular machines were starting to find some brilliant application in drug discovery, creating start-ups in cosmetics, to name just a few – advocating strongly for blue skies research. He cited another Scotsman, Alexander Fleming, and his ‘accidental discovery’ of penicillin, the first true antibiotic, which revolutionised modern medicine. Another good example would be Barnett Rosenberg’s ‘accidental discovery’ of cisplatin, the revolutionary cancer drug, which was discovered through an experiment completely unrelated to cancer research. Were it not for these “accidents”, science and medicine may not have advanced to where they are today. Curiosity-driven scientists, seeking answers to the obscure and their unusual observations, are to thank for the state of modern science. Professor Stoddart is another of these curiosity-driven chemists – tackling a big problem in an unexplored field and revolutionising the mechanical bond.

After a lengthy discussion amongst the professors about this, Sir Fraser turned to me and asked, “from your point of view as a student here in Singapore, what are your views on the science culture?” I decided that here, at this table with the Dean and Vice Dean of Science and the Head of Chemistry, that I was going to make my opinion heard. I opened with the line “in my opinion, from where I stand in all of this, the approach is all wrong”. I got the feeling that the NUS professors were a little taken aback by my forwardness in that moment, to which Sir Fraser later made the comment that it is a very Scottish trait to “turn your back on authority and stand your ground – fight the system”. I was glad that at least he had my back in what was to be a bit of a rambling rant by me, giving my honest opinion on the science (well, chemistry) in Singapore. To sum it up, I advocated strongly against the idea that being a successful PhD student, or post-doc or professor for that matter, all boils down to how many publications you have, and how high the impact factors are of the journals you publish in. I gave a few examples of conversations I’d had with people in the department, and made the point of how so many of my peers care only about getting that high impact publication, no matter what it takes. I referred back to the point about blue skies research, and how it can take years of work before anything makes it to publication level – yet that is discouraged in favour of pushing out papers left, right and centre. I also mentioned that, from my own observations, and in my opinion, a student or post-doc with a larger number of publications, high impact or not, is not necessarily a better scientist than one with little or no publications within the same timeframe. But unfortunately, in the hiring process, it is a numbers game and often he/she with the most publications gets the job. However, I was comforted by the fact that, as Sir Fraser mentioned in his talk and then reiterated to me after my rant, Nobel Laureate Jean-Pierre Sauvage’s seminal publication, that ultimately led to his Nobel Prize, was published in what is considered a “lower tier” journal…in French. So, to paraphrase Sir Fraser, “it doesn’t matter where you publish it, if it’s ground-breaking then it will eventually be noticed”. Coming from a Nobel Laureate, those words clearly have meaning, and I will continue to believe them throughout my career.

Another thing that struck a chord with me was Sir Fraser’s attitude towards teaching. As mentioned earlier, in the aftermath of the Nobel Prize win he was to start travelling a lot and so he had to consider how this would affect his ability to perform his teaching duties at Northwestern. But rather than palming the duties off to another lecturer, Sir Fraser told us of how he managed get the curriculum rearranged slightly such that he could fit his lectures into a more condensed period. That way he could schedule his outrageous travel schedule around his teaching. I must say that I really admire this dedication to teaching, putting the needs of the students first. He also mentioned this in his talk, how he put his students and postdocs first, and would often go to his lab and say “what can I do for you today? How can I help?” Now that’s what I call a great boss!

On the subject of Sir Fraser’s students and postdocs, the last thing I want to mention is his dedication to diversity in science. He frequently referred to it in his talk, and then at the end he gave a summary about how he strongly believes that “science is global”. In a career spanning 50 years, he has led his research in both the U.S. and the U.K., with strong collaboration in China, and has mentored 413 PhDs and postdocs from 43 different countries. I also noted earlier how he had been one of the first in his department to hire foreign students in his lab. Not to forget, he shared the Nobel Prize with Ben Feringa and Jean-Pierre Sauvage, from the Netherlands and France, respectively. The Nobel Prize in Chemistry has been awarded 109 times to a total of 177 recipients, which further reinforces Sir Fraser’s argument. There were some rather obvious references to current political shenanigans, particularly in the US and the UK, two of the world’s scientific strongholds who seem determined to close their scientific borders, putting collaboration and access to international opportunities at serious risk. Can’t they just listen to Sir Fraser’s Nobel Lecture and realise how na├»ve they’re being?! Alas, as Sir Fraser said at lunch, these countries are being led by some of the most incompetent politicians we’ve seen in years.

Well, I think I’ve dragged on long enough, and this post has taken so long to write that I’m starting to forget most of whatever else was said at lunch. So, I’ll end on a positive note to just express my sincere gratitude to Sir Fraser Stoddart for his gracious invitation to lunch, and for being so keen to take pictures afterwards! Thank you, Sir!
Me with Sir Fraser Stoddart at NUS on January 23rd 2018.

No comments:

Post a Comment