Stockholm University: at the forefront of Chemistry research

With four Nobel Chemistry Prize winners through history and leading research in many fields of science, Stockholm University provides a unique environment for chemistry researchers and students.

Stockholm University: at the forefront of Chemistry research

Sweden has produced some of the world’s leading scientists over the centuries, including many pioneering chemists – and as the home of the Nobel Prize, Stockholm has a special place in the world of chemistry.

Chemists at Stockholm University have long upheld this tradition of research and innovation – four Nobel Chemistry Prize winners have been associated with the university, most recently to Paul J Crutzen in 1995.

Some of the most important chemistry research currently being undertaken at Stockholm is being carried out by Professor Gunnar von Heijne. The professor, who until recently was chairman of the Nobel Chemistry Prize Committee, researches on the assembly and structure of membrane proteins and is head of the Centre for Biomembrane Research at the university.

In 2008, von Heijne was awarded a €2 million European Research Council Advanced Grant, to research how cells make membrane proteins. These constitute a third of all the proteins in a cell and play a vital role in the way pharmaceuticals enter cells.

Membrane proteins are associated with cell membranes. More than half of all pharmaceuticals on the market have membrane proteins as their targets. In other words, the pharmaceuticals use membrane proteins as their ‘way in’ to cells.

“Many drugs ‘tickle’ the target cells by binding to the proteins on the membrane,” is how von Heijne describes the process.

This means that understanding more about membrane proteins will have big implications for the development of future drugs.

The Centre for Biomembrane Research is one of the leading research centres in the field, and has around 20 research groups, which study all aspects of biomembranes.

“There are only one or two places in the world that have this broad level of knowledge,” says von Heijne. It is building on the historic strengths of Stockholm University, which has long been a leader in the study of respiration and photosynthesis, both of which have involved research into membrane proteins.

“We realised we had a strong base to build broader-based research into membrane proteins.”

The strength of the centre’s research has attracted talent from around the world, with group leaders drawn from many countries, including from the Netherlands, Spain, Australia, the US and Germany.

“We don’t have to try very hard to find good, young group leaders. The centre has been a magnet for attracting people,” says von Heijne.

In addition, almost all post-doctoral students and most master’s students are from outside Sweden.

“It is rare that we teach a class at master’s level in Swedish, and when we do we find we’re using English terminology all the time,” von Heijne says.

The Stockholm scientific community is, of course, used to a high international profile. This is due not least to its association with the Nobel Prize. von Heijne spent twelve years on the committee that chooses the winner of the Nobel Chemistry Prize, chairing it for three years. In that role he sifted through thousands of nominations and spent up to two months a year working to find a winner.

The Nobel Prizes make Stockholm a particularly stimulating place for researchers; the university welcomes a steady stream of the world’s top scientists as seminar speakers, who are attracted by Stockholm’s Nobel connection:

“You would have to be in a very high profile research university in Europe or the States to see a similarly high-level set of people,” says von Heijne.

Stockholm’s strength in chemistry is not confined to biochemistry. Its first Nobel Prize winner, Svante Arrhenius, was considered one of the founders of physical chemistry, and the university is home to leaders in all areas of chemistry, including organic, inorganic and quantum chemistry.

In the latter field, Fahmi Himo recently received one of Sweden’s most prestigious scientific prizes, the 4.6 million krona Göran Gustafsson Prize, “for his development and application of quantum mechanical techniques for elucidation of enzymatic and homogeneous catalysis of chemical reactions”.

“We have internationally-leading scientists in many research areas – and they all teach. Study here, and you are at the forefront of research,” von Heijne says.

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Stockholm Open set to serve up a storm

The ATP Stockholm Open hits the Swedish capital on Saturday with international players vying for a piece of the €530,000 ($718,000) pie. Will it be a local Swede who takes out this year's title? The Local chats to the tournament organizer to find out more.

Stockholm Open set to serve up a storm

“All the sponsors, players and organizers are getting ready, I’m really excited,” tournament spokesman Christian Ahlqvist told The Local over the phone, with the sound of tennis balls thwacking around in the background.

Held inside Stockholm’s Royal Tennis Hall, the tournament has been played every year since 1969, attracting some of the biggest tennis names in Sweden and the world.

“All the big Swedish players have played in the Stockholm Open, Björn Borg, Mats Wilander. Former world number one Roger Federer won the title in 2010. We’ve had some really great players, its always been one of the tournaments to play in,” explained Ahlqvist.

IN PICTURES: See Swedish tennis legend Björn Borg’s career in pictures

Headlining this year’s contingent is Spanish world number four David Ferrer who is tipped to take home the trophy.

“Ferrer is coming from Shanghai, he’s a great player and he’s always performed very well here,” said Ahlqvist.

But if you thought it was a one horse race, think again. Bulgarian Grigor Dimitrov and Polish giant Jerzy Janowicz (who is over two metres tall), both 22, are two young players looking to challenge Ferrer and show the tennis world that they belong at the top.

However the odds are against Sweden netting the championship. World number 444 Markus Eriksson is the only confirmed Swedish player so far, although more may find their way through in Friday’s final qualifications. But statistically, the odds aren’t historically in the Swedes’ favour, with the last winner, Thomas Johansson, in 2004.

A strong Swedish presence in the singles may be lacking, but the Swedish men are expected to do better in the doubles.

“Jonas Björkman is making a comeback in the doubles with one of the best doubles players in the world, Robert Lindstedt. So that will be interesting to see,” said Ahlqvist.

As for a tip for the winner, Ahlqvist likes world number 41 Jarkko Nieminen from Finland.

“Jarko is someone who’s been a bit on and off the court with injuries. He’s played here so many times before, he’s almost a Swede. Everyone would love to see him win one.”

Saturday marks the opening ceremony for the Open, which will be held on centre court and is free for everyone. The tournament begins on the same day, with the final scheduled for Sunday the 19th.

Josh Liew

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