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November 2023   |   Volume 25 No. 1

Passion, Enthusiasm, Commitment

Distinguished chemist and Nobel Laureate Professor Sir Fraser Stoddart aims to instil a passion for research excellence, collaboration and original thought in the students he mentors in his new role as Chair Professor at HKU.

A proud native of Scotland, Professor Sir Fraser Stoddart comes to HKU after a remarkable career that has included time at top universities around the world, most recently at the renowned Northwestern University in the US. Retirement was looming, but Professor Stoddart “wasn’t ready to hang up my boots yet” and Asia beckoned.

Before joining HKU this September, Professor Stoddart already had connections with the University and with President and Vice-Chancellor Professor Xiang Zhang. “We were both faculty members at UCLA – he in Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering and I in Chemistry,” said Professor Stoddart. “We collaborated and published a paper together, and I visited him at HKU in 2019. Earlier this year, he spoke to me on the phone about Hong Kong and about the emergence and expansion of HKU under his leadership towards becoming a hub for the development of new areas in science and tech.”

The arrival of such a distinguished chemist at HKU is very significant for the University’s current development plans. “Having Fraser Stoddart, a Nobel Laureate, join us is a landmark,” noted Professor Peng Gong, Vice-President and Pro-Vice-Chancellor (Academic Development). “It’s a turning point for our University to move to the next stage of excellence.”

Excellence, particularly in research, was another factor that brought Professor Stoddart to Hong Kong. “The talent – here, and in the whole of China – in chemistry and materials science, and the leadership in research and the development of fundamental ideas, and maybe even in applications, has already passed to China from the US, and it will only get stronger as the years go on,” he said.

Unique attitude

“On top of that dynamic, there is the unique attitude of young researchers at the graduate and postdoc levels. I get immense pleasure out of supervising and mentoring young Chinese students in science and chemistry. They are passionate, enthusiastic, committed.”

He is bringing 12 postdoc level researchers from his Northwestern Lab with him and they will establish a lab at HKU. “Ten are Mainland Chinese, one Korean, one Indian. All immensely talented, hugely productive, very hardworking. Among the 12, there’re probably around six research areas going on at any one time, including on molecular machines and in the area of carbohydrate chemistry.”

Professor Stoddart feels his own move to Hong Kong is only the beginning. “Over the next few years this city will become a magnet for people who want to come and do extraordinary things in science and engineering. Excellent basic research is being carried out here at HKU in the areas of chemistry and materials science, and it will create a hub of excellence at every level in terms of conceiving new research lines, implementing them and then putting them out into the public domain through scientific papers.

“Hong Kong is a gem of a place too for the opportunities to step into the Chinese universities very easily – a godsend for those of us who want to continue collaborating, because there is a lot of superb expertise in departments of science across China.”

While here, Professor Stoddart will be doing research, as well as teaching on a one-to-one basis the young researchers, mainly at the postdoc level. “I look upon my job as a professor to be more about mentoring young people to do the very best in their research activities than trying to formulate new research goals myself.”

One of the lessons he aims to instil in them is the importance of collaboration. “Most of my research has been done collaboratively and published collaboratively – it brings a much higher level of achievement than you could ever achieve on your own. I encourage my postdocs to collaborate, because the more minds you bring into tackling a research problem, the better outcome you achieve.”

Nobel advice

Perhaps, not surprisingly, ambitious students often ask his advice on getting a Nobel Prize! His answer is always: “Do your own thing.” He feels that the field of molecular machinery currently needs more clever people to populate it. But his advice when students leave his laboratory is: “Don’t do Stoddart research, do something new. You’ve got to spend time until you find something – it won’t be that nobody has ever worked on it – there’ll be fragments in the past, as there was for me with the mechanical bond.

“I searched and eventually became convinced there was a major contribution to be made to chemistry by making mechanical interlocked molecules. My major contribution was the introduction to chemistry of another bond – the mechanical bond. That’s what I tell my postdocs – try to repeat what I did but in a different context.”

Professor Stoddart is convinced that HKU has potential to be a regional hub of excellence. “The time is right. There’s interest at the top level and that will attract the very best students particularly from Mainland China. I get enquiries daily from people in stellar universities in China wanting to join my lab. I think the next decade is going to be an amazing one for HKU.”

Excellent basic research is being carried out here at HKU in the areas of chemistry and materials science, and it will create a hub of excellence at every level…

Portrait of Professor Fraser Stoddart