Stationers Comprehensive in Crouch End, London
BSc Chemistry (1984) and PhD in Chemistry (1988), both at University College London (UCL)
Kodak Labs in New York, Lecturer at the University of Surrey (1990-2005), Professor of Materials Chemistry at the University of Bath (2006-present)
Professor of Materials Chemistry and the 2016 Christmas Lecturer
University of Bath
I’m a materials chemist and the presenter of this year’s Lectures!
I grew up in Crouch End, London, only walking distance from Alexandra Palace where the BBC broadcast the CHRISTMAS LECTURES from for the first time. 80 years later I’m excited to continue the tradition by presenting the 2016 CHRISTMAS LECTURES ‘Supercharged: Fuelling the future’. I am also a Professor of Materials Chemistry at the University of Bath and as well as my research, I do lots of work to encourage people of all ages to get involved in science. I’ve lived in this beautiful city with my wife and two children for the last 10 years and in my spare time I love watching films and reading novels.
I’m a chemist who doesn’t wear a white lab coat.
My research involves using powerful computer modelling techniques to investigate how energy-related materials behave at the atomic level. So when people ask me what I do, I sometimes say ‘I model’!
This research is important because the supply of clean, sustainable energy is one of the greatest challenges of the 21st century. All of the devices and technology we currently use to transform and store green energy, such as lithium batteries and solar panels, rely on specific materials in order to work. If we want to find new and improved forms of technology to help meet our growing energy needs, then we must develop better materials first. And that’s where materials chemistry comes in!
My Typical Day
Coffee, emails, writing up research, working with PhD students and researchers abroad, all to try and meet the energy challenges of the world!
I start every day with a single espresso coffee while I make a list of all things I want to get done that day – which I never complete! Then I check my emails and delete all the junk. When I get to the university, I usually spend my morning writing up the findings of my research so I can send them to journals for publication. One of the things I love about my job is working with my research group of PhD students and senior researchers who are all as enthusiastic as I am about materials chemistry and using it to help meet the world’s energy challenge. We talk through their experiments together, bounce ideas around and discuss the latest results. Who knows, maybe the next Nobel Prize winner is in this group?! One of my favourite things about working in science is how much of an international effort it is. I’ll often spend my afternoons on Skype talking to researchers from all over the world who are working on similar experiments to me.
How would you describe yourself in 3 words?
Scientist, dad, atheist
Who is your favourite singer or band?
What's your favourite food?
Thai green curry
What is the most fun thing you've done?
Our family holiday last year to Majorca because it was the first time we had our own pool!
What did you want to be after you left school?
When I was at school, my parents wanted me to pursue a career in medicine, but I wasn’t so keen. I remember going to the Royal Institution when I was about 15 for a fantastic schools lecture on light and colours by another Christmas Lecturer George Porter. That was the first time I realised that chemistry could be done as a full-time job and later I chose to study chemistry at university. Even then I still wasn’t sure about exactly what I wanted to do as a career. It was during my PhD at UCL and postdoc years at Eastman Kodak New York (in the late 1980s) when I was researching superconductors that I really became excited about science, and about materials chemistry in particular.
Were you ever in trouble at school?
When I was 14 I scribbled some graffiti outside my geology teacher’s office and I got caught. I wasn’t usually in trouble so the whole class was aghast when they discovered I was the culprit!
What was your favourite subject at school?
I was always good at science but I can’t say I was truly passionate about it when I was at school. I actually enjoyed English Literature – largely because of the book ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ by Harper Lee.
My favourite CHRISTMAS LECTURE memory is:
Christmas was a big TV occasion for my family when I was growing up. It was the only time of the year when we would buy the Radio Times and together we’d circle what we wanted to watch on TV. My parents, especially my dad, were very keen for my two younger sisters and I to get a good education. I remember bits of previous Ri CHRISTMAS LECTURES such as Carl Sagan’s ‘The Planets’ in 1977, when I was aged 14, and then much later Richard Dawkins’ ‘Growing up in the Universe’ from 1991. As part of my research for this year’s Lectures, I’ve been watching more of the modern Lectures, I particularly enjoyed Alison Woollard’s ‘Life Fantastic’ from 2013.
Tell us a joke.
I’m reading a book about helium….I just can’t put it down!