Nobel Laureate J. Fraser Stoddart Returns to UCLA to Honor Student and Alum

by Lisa Y. Garibay

 

When a Nobel Laureate comes back to campus, people flock.

The UCLA Department of Chemistry & Biochemistry presented its annual Norma Stoddart Award ceremony and lectures on Oct. 2, 2017, and Sir J. Fraser Stoddart, who received the 2016 Nobel Prize in Chemistry, was in attendance to tell a standing room only-crowd of students and faculty about the remarkable woman who was his wife.

The Stoddarts came to UCLA in 1997. “She was Fraser’s secret weapon,” said Ken Houk, distinguished professor and Saul Winstein chair of organic chemistry. He added that much of Fraser Stoddart’s Nobel-winning research was conducted at UCLA – and, in turn, owed a great deal to Norma.

Her husband described her as his fiercest critic, but both men also praised her deep empathy for the needs of Fraser’s research group and her pride in its diversity, a trait that Houk described as “the way for the most creative science to be done.”

Houk went on to describe Norma as a brilliant biochemist and an important contributor to many papers that came out of UCLA during her time with the university. He praised her skill and flair at science as well as in her interactions with students.

The Norma Stoddart Prize for Academic Excellence and Outstanding Citizenship was established by the family in 2004. It is open to all current and recently graduated research students and fellows in the UCLA Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry. Selections are made by a committee of graduate students within the department.

In characterizing the tenor of the prize named for Norma, Houk said, “She exemplified what we admire as a scientist and was a selfless contributor to the community.”

Dean of Physical Sciences Miguel García-Garibay, former chair of the Chemistry & Biochemistry department, described being deeply influenced by Fraser and his scholarship. He recalled the awe he had over the opportunity to work alongside the noted scientist, “someone of impressive stature that you could have lunch with and call on.”

During his return to campus to present the annual Norma Stoddart Prize to winning students in the Department of Chemistry & Biochemistry, Nobel Laureate and professor emeritus Sir J. Fraser Stoddart visited with faculty and students, including the Hosea Nelson group. Photo by Penny Jennings.

García-Garibay described how Fraser developed tools of chemistry that were elemental in the development of his own specialty, molecular machines.

After these introductions, Stoddart took attendees through the life of his beloved Norma, who succumbed to breast cancer in 2004.

Being in the conference room named for Donald Cram, Fraser first recognized the guitar-playing former UCLA professor and fellow Nobel Laureate – one of four who have come out of UCLA’s storied department. He praised Cram for his “extreme support and warmth” when he made his first visit to UCLA in 1978.

Fraser then took the audience through a slideshow journey of Norma’s life, from imagery of her parents’ honeymoon to Norma’s birth announcement in the local Scottish newspaper to her schooling, including graduating at the top of the class from the University of Edinburgh with a first-class honors BSc degree.

He charmed the audience with details of his first meeting with Norma in 1965; their wedding on Oct. 8, 1968; the arrivals of their daughters, Fiona and Alison; and the variety of places where the family lived based upon where the chemistry research took them.

Fraser’s stories about Norma and their life together were told with intimacy, self-effacing wit, and a slice of sarcasm that had the audience chuckling throughout. One poignant story focused on the day that Norma’s Ph.D. thesis on “the Hydroxylation of Cholesterol by Rat Liver” was up against a submission deadline.

Dismayed by the mistakes being made by a hired typist, Fraser took the duty upon himself and pounded away at a small Olivetti for hours. As the night progressed, Norma brought a mug of coffee to revive him. “But when I reached the end of the next line and the carriage returned to the other side, it knocked the cup over, spilling coffee all over the stack of pages that I had typed,” Fraser recalled.

When she retreated into a corner in tears, Fraser promised Norma he would stay up all night to retype everything, and he did. She received her Ph.D. in 1969.

Norma was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1992 when Fraser was a professor of organic chemistry at the University of Birmingham. “It was the beginning of our 12-year battle,” Fraser described. At that time, Houk, then chair of the UCLA Chemistry & Biochemistry department, reached out to Fraser to offer him the new Saul Winstein Professor of Chemistry chair. Given Norma’s health they were unable to relocate, and Fraser presumed the opportunity had passed for good, especially given his frame of reference at the time. “In the UK, when you are offered a faculty position, you have 24 hours to say yes, then it’s gone forever,” he said.

Two years later, Fraser traveled to UCLA for a celebration of Donald Cram’s 75th birthday, and was surprised to discover that the Winstein chair was still open. Again, it was offered to him, but Norma was still undergoing treatment, so Fraser turned down the position once again.

Finally, in 1997, with Norma well enough recovered – as well as encouraged by the constructive new approaches being offered by breast cancer physicians at UCLA – the family moved to California, and Fraser became the Saul Winstein Professor of Chemistry. The rest, as they say, is history – one that the winners of Norma’s award relish with admiration and gratitude.

“I always was in awe of the winners of this award from the first one given when I was a first-year graduate student,” said Liana Hie, the 2016 winner. “To get this prize is truly something I dreamed of.”

Liana received her B.S. in chemistry from UC Davis, where she performed undergraduate research under Professor Xi Chen working on chemo-enzymatic synthesis of heparan sulfate oligosaccharides. She obtained her Ph.D. in 2016 from UCLA under the direction of Professor Neil Garg.

Liana then joined Professor Scott Miller’s research laboratory at Yale University as an NIH Postdoctoral Fellow, where she works on site-selective modification of complex molecules. Her Norma Stoddard Prize lecture was entitled “Activation of Unconventional Electrophiles for Cross-Coupling Reactions”.

2017 Norma Stoddart Prize winner Christian Beren is currently completing his Ph.D. thesis at UCLA in the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry, working under the supervision of Professors Bill Gelbart and Chuck Knobler in the field of Physical Virology. Christian investigates how basic physical properties of RNA affect both the assembly and disassembly of single-stranded RNA viruses.

In addition to research, Christian has been involved in the CNSI outreach program at UCLA for several years, a program that brings nanoscience experiments to Los Angeles area high schools, and he enjoys teaching and mentoring younger students, both in courses and in the lab. He was also one of a handful of graduate students chosen from across campus in 2016-17 to teach his own course (“What is Nanoscience?”) as an instructor in the Collegium of University Teaching Fellows. His Norma Stoddart Prize lecture was entitled “The Effect of RNA Secondary Structure on Virion Assembly and Genome Release”.

“Our students deeply appreciate the chance to meet Sir Fraser,” said Cathy Clarke, chair of the Department of Chemistry & Biochemistry. “It is truly wonderful that he is so generous with his time and resources. The Norma Stoddart award is a very meaningful and high honor for our students.”

Stoddart joined the faculty at Northwestern University as its Board of Trustees Professor of Chemistry in 2008. Since 2011, he has returned to UCLA each year to present the Norma Stoddart Prize. The 2016 and 2017 awards were given out together in order to accommodate his schedule. Stoddart, a self-described “Twitter monster”, documented much of his visit on his feed, @sirfrasersays.

Where Are They Now: Bryan Pezeshki

Co-founder of Swipe Out Hunger and proud Bruin Bryan Pezeshki ’12, MBA ’16 has a passion for service. He recently obtained his M.D. from Duke University and aspires to direct his passion toward creating systematic change in health care.

Pezeshki works as an emergency medical resident at the Brookdale University Hospital & Medical Center, one of the main level 1 trauma centers in Brooklyn, NY. A self-described social entrepreneur, he ultimately plans to take the knowledge he gathered from treating individual patients to create large-scale changes that affect a greater number of stakeholders. He regularly draws on his UCLA experiences and connections in his current role.

Pezeshki’s work at Swipe Out Hunger proved to be one of the most rewarding experiences of his undergraduate years at UCLA.

“We saw the inefficiency of wasted meal swipes and recognized the prevalence of student hunger on campus,” he said.

He said that one of his best memories was going to Washington D.C., where President Obama recognized Swipe Out Hunger as a White House Champion of Change.

Pezeshki also completed cancer research at UCLA Health’s oncology department and went on to co-author an article titled “Patients’ Willingness to Participate in a Breast Cancer Biobank at Screening Mammogram” in the Breast Cancer Research and Treatment Journal published by the National Center for Biotechnology Information.

After completing his B.S. in neuroscience, Pezeshki knew that although he wanted to pursue a career in medicine, he wanted to make a bigger impact. He was able to enter into a dual program that allowed him to pursue an M.D. at Duke University while simultaneously acquiring an M.B.A. at the UCLA Anderson School of Management.

“I wanted to gain experience and expertise in the business side of healthcare administration that is rarely taught in medical school,” he says, “I am honored to have the opportunity to do what I love– to help people in need.”­­­­­­­­­

Pezeshki received a plethora of scholarships including the UCLA Rishwain Social Justice Entrepreneurship Award and the UCLA Anderson School of Management Merit Fellowship. “The awards were immensely helpful, especially with rising costs,” he said, “Looking back, those were crucial in helping to decrease the burden and allowing me to pursue my passions.”

Pezeshki said that one of his favorite aspects of working in the medical field is creating individual patient relationships. He would love to give back to UCLA and is considering returning as a clinician after completing his residency.

His advice to current students? “Focus on your studies and career, but most importantly, have fun and do what you love.”

Where Are They Now: Andrew Nicholls

The Spring 2013 issue of the College Report magazine featured psychology major Andrew Nicholls’ military service and his veterans advocacy work at UCLA. We recently caught up with him to learn more about his post-graduate career path and current endeavors.

Having spent more than nine years in the U.S. Army, Andrew Nicholls ’13 draws on his personal experience and UCLA education to pursue mental health advocacy for veterans and help them with the transition to civilian life.

Nicholls works as a clinical care manager at Evergreen Health in Kirkland, WA, where he conducts assessments of mental health and assault risk as well as crisis prevention. He plans to return to the Veterans Affairs office in Seattle to continue his research on veterans’ mental health.

The terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 prompted Nicholls to enlist in the military. While on active duty in Iraq he worked mainly on rebuilding community infrastructure and vocational programs. Unfortunately, his Army experience left him with lasting effects of PTSD, a struggle that led to his interest in veterans’ mental health advocacy.

Nicholls set his sights on UCLA and enrolled as a transfer student in 2011. He was named a UCLA Regents Scholar, honoring him as one of the top applicants of his class. He credits his mentor, psychology professor Christine Dunkel Schetter, with showing him how psychology research and social work could be a way to leverage his experience to help others.

“UCLA pushed me to challenge any notions I had of the status quo,” Nicholls said.

In 2012 while at UCLA, Nicholls founded the Killed in Action, Wounded in Action (KIA WIA) Foundation, which raises awareness of the sacrifices of men and women wounded or killed in the Global War on Terror. He also initiated an undergraduate seminar titled “Fast Cars and Battle Scars: Understanding the Modern Combat Veteran and PTSD,” which explored basic training, soldier perspectives and transition to civilian life. Nicholls said he was impressed by the depth with which the students engaged with the material, and he has stayed in touch with many of them.

“Leading that seminar was my top achievement while at UCLA,” he said. “Teaching reminded me of my time in the Army. What I loved about my experience in the military was leading a team and feeling a sense of comradery.”

After graduation, Nicholls continued to work for KIA WIA and obtained a master’s degree in social work from USC. He recently co-authored an article titled “Tattoos as a Window to the Psyche: How Talking about Skin Art Can Inform Psychiatric Practice due for publication in the World Journal of Psychology.