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In celebration, words from Nobel Laureate and praise from colleagues

EVANSTON - Scientists, colleagues and friends at Northwestern University joined in a champagne toast and heartfelt celebration today to honor one of their own, Sir Fraser Stoddart, after he was awarded the 2016 Nobel Prize in Chemistry.

Scores of Northwestern chemistry students, faculty members, researchers and media attended the ceremony inside the Rebecca Crown Center on Northwestern’s Evanston campus. The crowd burst into applause when Stoddart entered the room. He graciously shook every hand that was offered, joked about himself in self-deprecating ways and thanked his friends and University family for their support.

RELATED: Sir Fraser Stoddart is awarded Nobel Prize in Chemistry

Then Stoddart, 74, Board of Trustees Professor of Chemistry in the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences at Northwestern, declared passionately and repeatedly that the Royal Swedish Academy of Science’s award had underscored the importance of “fundamental science” and the research grants that keep it robust and impactful.

“You must keep supporting it,” he said of research funders around the world, “at a fundamental level, because none of us can actually forecast discovery. It comes with working for many years. In my case, in this area, I reckon it started in 1980,” he said. “It’s 35 years; it’s not overnight.”

“I applaud the fact that for once, in chemistry, Stockholm has recognized a piece of chemistry that is extremely fundamental in its making and being,” he noted, adding that he and one of his Nobel co-winners, Jean-Pierre Sauvage of France, are associated with the mechanical bond. “New bonds are few and far between — they really are blue moons,” he said, “so I think that is what’s being recognized more than anything.”

In wide-ranging remarks filled with gratitude to family, colleagues and students at Northwestern and around the world, Stoddart stressed the global nature of research and the importance of rewarding the basic science that leads to big discoveries down the road.

“I received the call at home around 4 this morning, and at first I thought it was a hoax,” he recounted. “Then I recognized the Swedish-accented English and realized it was for real. I am thrilled to be sharing this great honor with [Nobel co-winners] Jean-Pierre and Ben [Bernard L. Feringa of the Netherlands].”

“I also share this recognition with my students, postdoctoral fellows and colleagues. Northwestern is a special place, where everyone does science in a collaborative way. It happens seamlessly here. If you don’t have the expertise, you can find it, and people step forward without being asked. It is well known that we hunt in packs at Northwestern.”

Stoddart spoke movingly of his late wife and his two daughters — one in Cambridge, England, the other in Kobe, Japan. He called his daughters first thing after learning news of the Nobel. Both of Stoddart’s children are Ph.D. chemists.

“I spoke to them between receiving the phone call and the news becoming official,” he explained to the audience. “They were stunned. It was very emotional. I’ll tell you one story. My oldest grandson, James, eventually came on the phone and congratulated me. I said, ‘James, you got a lot to live up to.’ He said, ‘Surely I have. I don’t think it’s going to be possible, Grandad.’ His father chipped in, ‘Yes it is, James, you can get it on your own.’

“There are at least 500 students and postdocs worldwide who have followed me from Sheffield, England — the Pittsburgh of England — to Birmingham — the Detroit of England — to UCLA,” Stoddart added. “I had 10 wonderful years in the land of wall-to-wall sunshine, and then, of course, Chad Mirkin played a big hand in inducing me to come to Northwestern, starting in 2007, and I arrived in 2008.”

Stoddart sought to underscore a key point about the importance of a global population of scientists solving research problems together in labs around the planet and publishing worldwide. He scolded those who advocate more borders between scientists and their work.

“Science is global,” he emphasized. “A lot of my colleagues are from other parts of the world, as I am, and have been welcomed to America. My research group has Koreans; it has Australians; it has Chinese; it has people from Saudi Arabia; it has people from India, and from Poland and Turkey, and we could go on and on. This is what makes it hugely rich, to have these people working beside their American counterparts.”

Finally, Stoddart called on his young students to take heart, continue their work and keep at it, despite adversity and often laboring in obscurity for many years. “That’s the other message to the young people out there,” who may not have had proper recognition yet, he said. “In chemistry, at least, it hardly happens you get recognition when you are young. It might happen. I wish you, those who are trying to climb the dizzying heights of doing something highly creative and original, to stick at it,” he urged.

His remarks were peppered with humor, warmth and an unabiding love of the creativity that leads to scientific discovery. The celebration included champagne and an abundance of pride, reflected not just in Stoddart’s words but also in tributes from Northwestern University President Morton Schapiro, Provost Daniel Linzer and colleagues in chemistry and nanotechnology.

President Schapiro congratulated Professor Stoddart on “an extraordinary honor,” stressing that the Nobel Prize also reflects on Northwestern’s chemistry department, “widely recognized as among the top chemistry departments, not just in this country, but throughout the world.”

“Your contributions to that field are, of course, legendary,” Schapiro said to Stoddart at the microphone. “Most people want to stand on the shoulders of those who came before them, but actually Fraser Stoddart, of course, created his own new field, and that’s why he’s being honored with the Nobel Prize in Chemistry.”

The prize also reflects well on the standing of “our nanotechnology group, and Chad Mirkin, our brilliant leader, standing there in the back,” President Schapiro added, referring to Northwestern’s professor and founding director of the International Institute for Nanotechnology (IIN).

Northwestern University is all about what the Nobel Prize honors, President Schapiro said.  “Northwestern is a place that takes research at the highest level into its core, into its fabric, but also a place that doesn’t neglect undergrads,” he said.

He cited an analogy from the morning news that made him laugh out loud: “Fraser Stoddart is to nanotechnology what J.K. Rowling is to children’s literature.”

“So when you talk about the grandeur of our chemistry department here at Northwestern University, just think of our nanotechnology group,” he said.

President Schapiro also called attention to the International Institute for Nanotechnology (IIN) Symposium, an annual gathering at Northwestern of top nanoscientists and engineers from around the world. Professor Stoddart will offer a few remarks at the symposium Thursday (Oct. 6) morning.

“Sometimes people joke when they talk about NU, which means obviously Northwestern University, that NU probably stands for Nanotechnology University or Nano University, and we’ll take that, especially today, Fraser, in honor of you,” President Schapiro said.

After the president spoke, Provost Daniel Linzer raised a glass of champagne and led the leaders and the audience in a toast to Stoddart, stating, “Raise your glass and toast Fraser for his accomplishments, for his wonderful accomplishments here at Northwestern, to science and the world. Congratulations, Fraser.” 

Chad Mirkin, the George B. Rathmann Professor of Chemistry in the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences, gave a strong tribute to the scientist he recruited to Northwestern, observing, “When Fraser Stoddart made his bold move to Northwestern University, he said that, ‘A century ago, if you were an artist or a writer, Paris was a magnet drawing people. Today, Northwestern is the magnet drawing people in nanotechnology.’ If this is the case, we now have a scientific Monet among us.”

Mirkin also is a professor of medicine at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine and professor of chemical and biological engineering, biomedical engineering and materials science and engineering in the McCormick School of Engineering and Applied Science.

“Fraser winning the Nobel Prize is extraordinary recognition of remarkable scientific accomplishment, talent and creativity, but, perhaps more importantly, it has established Northwestern University as the destination for great scientists and engineers interested in nano science and related interdisciplinary disciplines,” Mirkin said. “Since Fraser’s move, Northwestern has attracted luminaries like Milan Mrksich from the University of Chicago, John Rogers from the University of Illinois and Will Dichtel from Cornell, and Fraser was, in part, the catalyst for getting them here.”

Peter Stair, chair of the department of chemistry in Weinberg College, said of Stoddart, “Fraser is the quintessential brilliant, creative scientist. His focus and intensity, when combined with passion and curiosity, have enabled him to achieve remarkable accomplishments. At the same time, he is a strong believer in a global scientific community that transcends the borders that separate nations.”

Among the many students Professor Stoddart has mentored along the way is William Dichtel, now the Robert L. Letsinger Professor of Chemistry at Northwestern. Dichtel observed, “Fraser has been an outstanding mentor of young scientists. I was a postdoctoral researcher in his lab at UCLA, and he cultivated a rich and dynamic environment — enough intellectual freedom to pursue new ideas and opportunities, along with guidance on how to tackle the most important problems, manage projects, collaborate across scientific disciplines and present one’s research effectively. 

“Fraser led by example, with regards to his unwavering integrity and passion for his work,” Dichtel added. “Even after I left his laboratory to start my own research lab, Fraser has been unwavering in his advice and support, and he was a huge part of attracting me to move to Northwestern earlier this year.”