RSC President-elect becomes only the second UK scientist to win The Porter Medal

05 May 2010

Incoming RSC president Professor David Phillips has been awarded The Porter Medal - the first British scientist to do so since its inauguration in 1988.

The Porter Medal, named after the late George Porter FRS, Nobel Laureate, the British chemist who won the inaugural medal, is awarded biannually to the scientist who has contributed most to the science of photochemistry with particular emphasis on more physical aspects, reflecting George Porter's own interests.

In Professor Phillips' case, the prestigious prize acknowledges major contributions in a scientific lifetime's achievement of work and is a symbol of recognition from colleagues in Europe, the United States and Asia. One of those contributions includes the development of time-correlated single photon counting  (TPSCP) in the 1970s - a technique for measuring with great accuracy the fluorescence decay times of fluorescent molecules. 

Professor Phillips said: "Until the 70s, the light sources used were low-intensity flashlamps  - a bit like spark-plugs, giving about as much light! We were among the first in the world to use mode-locked lasers as a light source, and we developed methods, now used universally, of  'counting backwards' which saves much time. With my colleague Desmond O'Connor, we produced a monograph in 1984 which became known as  'the bible' of TPSCP, and has been cited tens of thousands of times."

Two more major highlights of Professor Phillips' career include "the pioneering use of time-resolved vibrational spectroscopy with colleagues in Rutherford Appleton Laboratories to study the structural changes which take place in molecules where charge transfer occurs on absorption of light; and most significantly, the work we have done in Photo-dynamic Therapy  (PDT), the use of a sensitising dye injected into the blood stream which is then excited by red laser light, causing the destruction of surrounding tissue."

Professor Phillips' research group at Imperial College has studied the physics and chemistry of sensitisers, many made by  his team and most recently, in conjunction with an Imperial College start-up company, PhotoBiotics, has developed targeted PDT, in which the sensitisers are covalently linked to monoclonal antibody fragments, thus achieving highly selective tissue destruction.

He said it was "an enormously pleasant surprise" to find out he had won The Porter Medal and also described the experience as  "very humbling ... since George Porter was someone I greatly admired as a scientist and man. I first really encountered him when I went to the Royal Institution in 1980 to be Wolfson Professor, and his Deputy Director. We had separate research groups, and our science did not overlap too much  (we have only two joint publications), but I was a colleague at the RI, and later in Imperial College from that point until his death in 2002. It was not just his science I admired, but also his efforts to promote science in general, chemistry in particular, to the general public and the young. His lectures in the RI were legendary, and I followed in his footsteps. So as a great admirer of George Porter, both of his science and his commitment to public appreciation of science, I am honoured to bear the medal in his name."

Professor Phillips still gives more than 20 demonstration lectures per annum, though that may decline due to other  commitments after he becomes president of the RSC in July.   He also said it was important a British scientist won The Porter Medal - the first to do so for 22 years. 

"Thanks to George and others, we had in the UK a very strong photochemistry community from the 1960s onwards. This has become smaller of late, as the science matured, diversified and fragmented, but the contribution the UK made over the years was an important one. It is very nice that our colleagues in the USA, Latin America, Asia, Australia and New Zealand have recognised this. I would say that I was just one representative of this community, and so I am fortunate to be the one chosen, but it sends a strong signal to our colleagues in other countries that we are still   active, and will I hope be a great encouragement to the many younger scientists in the UK working in photochemistry and related fields."

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