Meeting Sir Fraser Stoddart

By Beth Crowston, PhD student

Recently, I was honoured with the opportunity to present my PhD research, “designing, synthesising and testing dual-modal imaging agents”, to Nobel Laureate and former Sheffield lecturer, Professor Sir Fraser Stoddart. It was a privilege to discuss my work with someone decorated with the highest accolade in science, and an incredible compliment to hear afterwards that he considered my work “impressive”. For me, commendation of this level from someone so successful in their field is really inspirational.

Me presenting my poster to Sir Fraser

My poster described some of the research I have been doing on probes for use in biological imaging; designing and synthesising molecules that can stain cells such that they can be observed with both MRI and optical imaging methods. With some further development, probes of this type could find application in a number of biomedical diagnostics. During our discussion, Prof. Stoddart appraised my poster and commented on the images of cells stained with my compound. He seemed genuinely surprised that I had taken them myself, and had not relied on the talents of a biologist specialising in this area. I was unaware that this would have attracted his attention as being noteworthy, as the opportunity to be trained on a technique outside of the typical scope for a chemist is not unusual.

On the basis of this, Prof. Stoddart remarked that he could relate to me on the grounds that I was “a scientist, not just a chemist”. As well as being rather flattered by this assessment, it also led me to think about the benefits that undertaking a cross-disciplinary project has had. Having a broad skill set means that I am able to take ownership of my research and follow my project through in its entirety. This gives me an increased feeling of pride in my accomplishments, as they are solely my own. However, in order to learn the important skills that have allowed me the opportunity to lead my own research, I first had to collaborate with scientists from other disciplines. I now realise that working with a diverse assortment of researchers has advanced my own work much further than I ever could have achieved otherwise.

This power of collaboration is greatly exemplified by the 2014 winners of the Nobel Prize in Chemistry, who collectively won “for the development of super-resolved fluorescence microscopy” (these techniques are closely related to some used in my own work). Without the partnership with the chemists who designed the necessary fluorescent molecules, the Nobel Laureates would have been unable to circumvent the limitations that they were battling, that eventually won them the prize. Working together across many disciplines, but also building upon the foundations that were laid before them, allowed the scientists to achieve something that had, up until that point, been thought impossible.

Me with Sir Fraser and fellow PhD student Joe Clarke

Without the freedoms I have been granted, I would never have had the opportunity to meet so many talented people working on so many different projects. It is inspiring to be witness to the many different threads of research that eventually intertwine and produce remarkable results. It can be all too easy whilst undertaking research to feel like a cog fuelling a machine, however, I have recently come to realise that I am actually standing on the shoulders of giants. Working together with a new generation of researchers to build upon the work of those who have come before us, allows us to collectively push the forefronts of science.

Meeting Prof. Stoddart has made me appreciate the impact I can make through my research, perhaps not as an individual, but certainly as part of the Sheffield family, and indeed as part of the wider scientific community. It is now much clearer to me that building upon the successes of others, especially as a “scientist” working on a collaborative project, can certainly lead to impressive outcomes.