An Interview with Charles Stirling

by Matt Watson, PhD student. Originally published in issue seven of Resonance.

Charles StirlingProfessor Charles Stirling FRS, has had a career in chemistry spanning many decades. He is a Fellow of the Royal Society and was once the Head of this very department in which he now works as an Emeritus Professor in Professor Nick Williams' group. His current work is on surface chemistry based around calixarenes. Matt Watson spoke to Charles about his life experiences.

Charles' interest in chemistry began at age 12. He was fascinated by the burning metal of a magnesium strip, and the intensity of the light produced encouraged him to learn more. Surprisingly, as a young boy he was not drawn in by the bangs of chemistry, but they would go on to play a role in his later career.

He began his journey into the world of chemistry in Scotland, obtaining his BSc from the University of St. Andrews, before heading to King’s College London to study for his PhD. Here, he shared a lab with Sir John Cadogan, a very influential scientist specialising in organic chemistry.

Soon after completing his PhD, Charles was obliged to undertake national service. He looked around enthusiastically for a non-barracks job and found that one of his options was a deferred job at the explosives department at Imperial Chemical Industries (ICI). However, his impression was tainted when he met the company research director who had a patch over an eye and his arm in a sling. This did not fill Charles with confidence and so his decision was "no", but fortunately the government created a series of research fellowships at several research stations around the country, including atomic research and the Chemical Defence Establishment at Porton Down. Charles was interviewed for his role by the novelist Harry Hoff (pen name William Cooper) who immediately took a shine to him.

Otto von GuerickeHis eventual position at Porton Down allowed Charles a degree of free reign. However, his insistence not to be involved in hurting people was problematic in a department based around military research. Instead Charles worked on antidotes to nerve agents, which involved phosphorus chemistry, important to his future research career.

After national service, Charles was troubled by the common question: "do you go into academia or not?" Charles wanted to stay in research, enjoying the unique life of a researcher. Happily, after his independent research at Porton Down he felt that he had proved to himself that he was capable of researching without a supervisor. Following a series of positions around the country, in 1990, he was offered a position at Sheffield, where he later became Head of Department. His research has focused on physical organic chemistry, with a particular emphasis on kinetics and intramolecular interactions.

Some of his best work has been conducted on strain in molecules, multi-layering on surfaces, and multiple low-energy interactions. Charles has seen research in chemistry change massively over the years, notably with computers and NMR spectroscopy. He remembers using a 16 MHz NMR spectrometer, which when compared to today’s standard 400 MHz instruments, shows the amazing advancement that chemists have achieved. He predicts that the next big progression in chemistry will be a revolution in the synthesis of organic biologically important molecules.

But Charles has also witnessed the change in academic culture. As a big believer in equality, he felt that people should be evaluated exclusively on their skills and is happy with the changing landscape that has occurred over his life time with more female staff in the department and across the whole of academia.

His passion for chemistry has often led him into performing outreach for both school pupils and the public, which includes the prestigious accolade of delivering the Royal Institute Christmas Television Lecture. On the back of his outreach work he was awarded an Honorary Doctor of Science research degree from the University of Sheffield in 2007, for "raising the public understanding of science".

An extract from Charles' Royal Institution Christmas Lectures, 'Our World Through the Looking Glass':

Graduation Award for Charles

More recently, at the end of this year’s graduation ceremony, a surprised Professor Charles Stirling was awarded a special certificate for speaking as public orator at 100 graduations – by our calculations, approximately 9000 minutes or more than six days! After the ceremony, Professor Stirling echoed the sentiments expressed by honorary graduate, first British astronaut and University of Sheffield alumna Dr Helen Sharman, advising all new graduates "to be on the lookout for new activities, new information, new opportunities and new outlooks on the world".


Read more from Resonance

We continue to celebrate Charles' legacy with our regular Charles Stirling lectures: Events