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New lecture series honours chemistry professor

Queen's alumnus and Nobel Laureate Sir Fraser Stoddart delivers inaugural Walter A. Szarek Lecture.

  • [Mario Pinto, Walter Szarek, Sir Fraser Stoddart]
    The inaugural Walter A. Szarek Lecture was delivered by Sir Fraser Stoddart at Queen's on Friday, April 13. From left, Mario Pinto, President of the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC), Dr. Szarek, and Sir Fraser.
  • [Sir Fraser Stoddart, Walter Szarek]
    Nobel Laureate Sir Fraser Stoddart speaks with Walter Szarek after delivering the inaugural Walter A. Szarek Lecture in Chernoff Hall.
  • [A member of the crowd raises his hand]
    A member of the crowd raises his hand to ask a question of Nobel Laureate Sir Fraser Stoddart as he delivers the inaugural Walter A. Szarek Lecture.
  • Nobel Laureate Sir Fraser Stoddart speaks with Cathleen Crudden (Chemistry)
    Nobel Laureate Sir Fraser Stoddart speaks with Cathleen Crudden (Chemistry) during a reception held at Chernoff Hall following the Walter A. Szarek Lecture.

Sir Fraser Stoddart, the 2016 recipient of the Nobel Prize in Chemistry, delivered the inaugural Walter A. Szarek Lecture on Friday, April 13, honouring a researcher he considers one of the most significant influences in his career.

From 1967 to 1970, Sir Fraser, who received the Nobel Prize for his work in the design and synthesis of molecular machines, was a postdoctoral fellow in the Queen’s Department of Chemistry, working in the research group led by J.K. Jones. However, with Dr. Jones working abroad, Sir Fraser was effectively supervised by Dr. Szarek.

It was Dr. Szarek who directed Sir Fraser’s research interests from carbohydrate chemistry to the then brand-new area of macrocycle synthesis and chemistry.

“It is a moment full of nostalgia,” Sir Fraser said. “The period of post-doctoral work was one of the sweetest and most significant parts of my academic career. The fact that my journey started here at Queen’s with Walter has stood me in good stead as I have moved around, from country to country, and from lab to lab.”

During his time at Queen’s, Dr. Walter Szarek has been a professor, supervisor, mentor, and friend to many. On the occasion of his 80th birthday, the Department of Chemistry honoured his many contributions with the announcement of a new lecture series in his name. Mario Pinto, President of the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC), introduced the distinguished speaker. A Queen’s alumnus, Dr. Pinto also studied chemistry at Queen’s as an undergraduate and later completed his PhD under the supervision of Dr. Szarek.

Dr. Szarek’s research lies at the interface of chemistry and medicine, with a particular focus on drug discovery and development. He played a leading role in the establishment of Neurochem (now Bellus Health, Inc.) and successful drug candidates such as KIACTA for the treatment of Amyloid A Amyloidosis, Alzhemed for the treatment of Alzheimer's Disease, and the nutraceutical VIVIMIND for the protection of memory function. Each of these drug candidates were synthesized in the Szarek Laboratory at Queen’s.

Dr. Pinto highlighted the important role a supervisor plays for graduate students, pointing to his personal experience with Dr. Szarek as a perfect example.

“Graduate work is life-changing. It’s important to remember that a PhD is a Doctor of Philosophy, not a Doctor of Chemistry. The lessons you learn teach you to how to approach life and how to learn,” he said. "That time of my life was made even more special and transformative because I had Walter as my mentor.”

When asked what advice they would pass on to current students, the distinguished chemists emphasized the importance of mentorship.

“Mentorship is the most important part of a professor’s activities,” Sir Fraser commented. “I get asked all the time: What is my legacy? It is not my research. I will be remembered by my students and by my extended family of scientists that started here at Queen’s with Walter and that has grown over the past half-century.”

Dr. Szarek was admittedly “overwhelmed” by the opportunity to be reunited with Sir Fraser and Dr. Pinto and grateful for their return to the university to present the inaugural lecture.

“They are world-renowned scientists – a Nobel Prize winner and the president of NSERC,” he said. “This is a fantastic moment for our department and for Queen’s.”