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Fostering Creativity in Science and Engineering “Support People, not Projects, to Encourage Discovery”

“People are more important than money,” said Nobel laureate and keynote lecturer Sir Fraser Stoddart at the Achema opening ceremony on Monday.“Support people, not projects,” he added in a voice full of emotion as he looked back on a research career spanning five decades, during which he has mentored 500 students from 50 countries.

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The winners of the Dechemax student prize with TV journalist Kay-Sölve Richter (left) and Kurt Wagemann (2nd left) and Rainer Diercks (3rd right) of Dechema, who hosted the ceremony. A bigger and more detailed image will be in the text below.
The winners of the Dechemax student prize with TV journalist Kay-Sölve Richter (left) and Kurt Wagemann (2nd left) and Rainer Diercks (3rd right) of Dechema, who hosted the ceremony. A bigger and more detailed image will be in the text below.
(Source: Jose Poblete/Dechema)

Stoddart’s theme was how serendipity plays a vital part in scientific discovery, and how diversity and intellectual freedom in turn create conditions under which creativity flourishes. Stoddart, a Scot by birth, is a professor at Northwestern University (Evanston, Ill.). His 2016 Nobel prize recognizes his part in the discovery of macromolecules with nano-scale moving parts, which he calls “molecular machines”. Their applications are unclear as yet, though nanobots, smart materials and batteries seem promising. Yet Stoddart is confident that in time these tiny mechanisms will become hugely important.

The electric motor dates from 1827, Stoddart said, yet saw no practical application for 50 years. Much closer to commercialization are the metal-organic frameworks (MOFs) developed by Stoddart and his colleagues from nano-scale “buckets” of cyclodextrins, which in turn are made from glucose. One application is to extract gold from its ore without the use of harmful cyanide or mercury. Another is as a molecular sieve to separate isomers of xylene. Earlier at the event, Dechema chairman Rainer Diercks reminded attendees how the future of Achema and the chemical process industries depends on the enthusiasm of young people to study science.

Diercks, Dechema CEO Kurt Wagemann and host Kay-Sölve Richter, a well-known TV presenter, went on to present prizes to the three winning teams in Dechema’s Dechemax student competition. This year’s focus was medicine, and the young scientists had been busy culturing microorganisms. “We all want to study science, whether it’s chemistry or not,” said a young female spokesperson for one of the teams.

Following the themes of youth and growth, the event also saw three companies honored with the Achema Startup Award for new businesses. One was Plasmion, a company that has developed an “electronic nose” that allows a benchtop mass spectrometer to act as an online sensor, with likely applications in the food and cosmetic industries. The others were Heidelberg Delivery Technologies, which is working on novel drug delivery technology that will allow patients to take peptides and proteins in the form of pills, and Wattron, which has developed a printed modular heating system.

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