Award winning lecturer Chick C Wilson
This month we catch up with a chemist from Bath who’s been lecturing on misbehaving molecules
Chick Wilson - from the University of Bath – has recently been awarded the 2011 Thomas Graham Medal of the Royal Philosophical Society of Glasgow. His award winning lecture Mysterious cases of misbehaving molecules earned him the accolade, which has been awarded annually since 1879 to an outstanding scientist able to present a science lecture to a general audience.
The award is given in honour of Thomas Graham –a 19th century Scottish chemist who carried out pioneering work on the diffusion of gases and on dialysis, and founded the Chemical Society of London.
Chick received his medal from Professor Sir Roddy MacSween, President of the Society. This month, we caught up with Chick to find out more about his lecture – which covered the phenomenon of polymorphism in crystals among other subjects.
You’ve just received the 2011 Thomas Graham Medal of the Royal Philosophical Society of Glasgow – how does it feel?
It was something of a surprise to be given this honour, and as you can imagine a very pleasant one. I had accepted the invitation to deliver a public science lecture to the society, which I was naturally delighted to do, and the challenge of delivering a lecture to a large audience (around 300) of such a prestigious society added spice to this. I was blown away when informed I would get the Thomas Graham Medal.
Tell us more about your award-winning lecture Mysterious cases of misbehaving molecules:
This is a theme that I tend to return to in a range of different forums, including public lectures, popular talks to young people and in discussion sessions such as the Cafe Scientifique. It is based around the fact that as Chemists we are really clever at making things (molecules) and in many cases we know what we want to make, make it and (hopefully) use it for some application in health, industry, foodstuffs, etc. Often for applications we need to take the molecules we have made and assemble them in regular ways into solid materials, for example as small crystallites in making tablets of pharmaceutical materials that makes them easy and effective to deliver orally. So far, so good, but the lecture focuses on what can happen when things go wrong. Although as chemists we are good at predicting what we will make, sometime we make something different, and this is still especially true of the assembly of molecules into solid crystalline materials. Usually this does not really matter, and as so often in science we are able simply to try something else to get the material we need. But sometimes it does matter, and the effect of the molecules putting themselves together badly can be serious. The lecture focuses on the two phenomena of enantiomerism (in individual molecules) and polymorphism (in putting molecules together into crystalline forms), and discusses some of the serious problems that molecules misbehaving in this way can have. In the lecture I aim to answer questions such as "Ever wondered why chocolate goes white with age?", "What caused the thalidomide tragedy?" and "Did you realise that a major US pharmaceutical firm recently lost over $250M because the molecules of an anti-HIV drug started sticking together badly?". Along the way I also introduce the Mystery of the Disappearing Polymorphs!
What’s your day job?
I am Chair (Professor) of Physical Chemistry at the University of Bath, since 2010. Before joining Bath, I returned to my home city in 2003 as Regius Professor of Chemistry at the University of Glasgow, after almost 20 years at a national laboratory near Oxford trying to get good at something called “Structural Chemistry”. I have been looking at the way molecules interact for more years than I care to admit, and along with my research groups, am currently involved in a range of research projects and several UK-wide networks looking into this.
Tell us about your research at the University of Bath:
I am a structural chemist, an area of chemistry where we make new materials in a different way from some other chemists. Instead of joining atoms together by making or breaking normal covalent bonds, we join whole molecules together by making or breaking other types of bonds. These so-called intermolecular bonds – of which the hydrogen bond is the most well–known and widespread – are in some ways easier to work with, since they will usually assemble in simple experiments to produce useful solid-state materials. However, they do cause problems – they are less easy to predict and control than are normal chemical bonds, and a whole science called “Crystal Engineering” has grown up to try to find ways of doing just that. in our research at the University of Bath, we try to find out how we can put molecules together most effectively, with the target orf both understanding more about these interactions, and for designing materials with potential applications in optics, electronics and pharmaceuticals. So, we work in the area of Crystal Engineering, trying to design sets of molecules that when put together will produce a solid-state architecture that can be predicted and, more importantly, whose properties can be controlled. This involves choosing the types of molecule to put together, how best to assemble and study them using advanced experimental and computational techniques. We also examine the evolution of these molecules as their structure and properties change with different composition and external conditions. These molecules are usually assembled into the solid-state using the technique of Crystallisation, and we try to control the way in which the molecules assemble through advanced crystallisation techniques, which can be beneficial both in discovering new materials and in optimising the production of previously known and useful systems.
Will this Medal have any effect on your research, or encourage you to do more public lectures?
The award of the Thomas Graham Medal and the stimulating and extensive question and answer session after the lecture just cemented in my mind the fact that our research is relevant to people, and that our detailed work in structural chemistry really does have wider interest and application. It is always good to be able to take some at times esoteric and fundamental work and see a link through that to things that matter in the real world. The fact that I give public lectures on our research has been really helpful in making sure that I am always thinking about the "so what?" aspect of our research and I honestly believe we have benefited from that in developing the excitement and enthusiasm we have around our work in this area. In terms of further public lectures, I have more of these coming up and we have managed to secure a small grant from one of our research councils to enable us to develop a theme called "The Molecular Odyssey", to be delivered to a wide range of audiences, so that will help maintain the profile of this aspect of my work.