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The University of Southampton

Southampton professor awarded prestigious Royal Society medal for outstanding chemistry

Published: 24 August 2021
Professor Malcolm Levitt
Prestigious Royal Society medal for outstanding chemistry

Professor Malcolm Levitt from the University of Southampton has been honoured by the Royal Society with the Davy Medal for outstanding chemistry.

The prestigious honour recognises his ground-breaking contributions to the theory and methodology of nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR), which is best known in the form of magnetic resonance imaging, or MRI.

Professor Levitt has built an international reputation across a distinguished career including research posts in Switzerland, Sweden and the USA. He has been based in Southampton’s School of Chemistry for over 20 years.

The Davy Medal, which was first awarded in 1877, annually celebrates an outstanding researcher in the field of chemistry. The prize is named after eminent scientist and inventor Humphry Davy.

Professor Levitt says: “It is an enormous honour to be awarded this prize by the Royal Society. My principal research field of nuclear magnetic resonance is a bit of an oddball topic, sitting at the intersection of many areas of science while being mainstream in none of them. So it is particularly gratifying to receive such a prestigious prize in Chemistry for my research.

“I would like to express my deepest gratitude to the prize committee, and also my research group and collaborators for making it possible.”

Every atom contains a nucleus surrounded by electrons, and many nuclei are weakly magnetic. These atomic nuclei behave according to the laws of quantum mechanics, with one quantum effect enabling nuclei to receive and emit radio waves, like tiny radio stations.

In MRI, scientists transmit radio waves to trigger this information which is then used to construct images, for example of human anatomy. The field of NMR uses this technique to provide information on the structure and motion of molecules in a huge range of systems, including the proteins, nucleic acids and small molecules that make up our bodies, and also materials of technological importance, such as glasses and battery materials.

Professor Levitt’s group at Southampton is working on new ways to interact with the magnetic nuclei and gain information about matter. The group’s primary current interest is to develop the phenomenon of hyperpolarisation, in which the radio signals are enhanced by huge factors, up to tens of thousands, by preparing the sample in a special way. This may eventually lead to new types of NMR and MRI experiment, for example forming images of cancer activity, using just a magnet and radio waves, avoiding the need for an operation, or the use of damaging high-energy radiation.

Professor Levitt explains: “NMR gives the experimentalist an opportunity to interact with a truly quantum-mechanical system - in a way that is probably more direct and intimate than any other form of spectroscopy. The thought that quantum objects such as atomic nuclei behave in a way that is very complex, very counter-intuitive, but almost completely predictable, is a permanent source of wonder. I have had some contact with other fields of science, but I can truly say there is nothing like NMR in this regard.”

Professor Levitt’s principal honours include the LATSIS Research Prize of ETH-Zürich, 1985, the Göran Gustafsson Prize in Chemistry, Sweden, 1996, the Ampère Prize of the International Society of Magnetic Resonance, 2005, the Laukien Prize in Magnetic Resonance, 2008, and the Russell Varian Prize in Nuclear Magnetic Resonance, 2015. He became a Fellow of the Royal Society in 2007.

President of the Royal Society, Sir Adrian Smith, said: “Through its medals and awards the Royal Society recognises those researchers and science communicators who have played a critical part in expanding our understanding of the world around us.”

“From advancing vaccine development to catching the first glimpses of distant pulsars, these discoveries shape our societies, answer fundamental questions and open new avenues for exploration.

“On behalf of the Royal Society I congratulate each of our award winners and thank them for their work.”

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