School of Chemistry, Cardiff University
What is your background? What made you decide to become a scientist?
I was always much better with numbers than words, and the core of my education was a combination of maths, computer science and chemistry. At school, I was really inspired by the capabilities of personal computers (PCs) and the internet as they came to prominence in the late 1990s; I had built my own PC by 12, and was programming and running a website design company at 14. I was also really stimulated by chemistry, through some engaging teachers, and I specifically enjoyed that chemistry doesn’t always conform to the principles of computing logic.
My interests in computing and chemistry were carried into studies at the University of Birmingham, where I meandered through lecture courses on a joint honours degree. I had planned to become a school-teacher until I began a computational project using genetic algorithms – precursors to modern day artificial intelligence approaches – for the prediction of chemical structures. My supervisor, Prof. Roy Johnston, showed me how powerful computing could be for interpretation of chemical data, and I am indebted to the support and freedom I was given during my studies with him. My undergraduate project, and the PhD that followed in his group, were the key activities that led to me being where I am today, which is involved in the development and application of computational chemistry across many sub-disciplines.
What would you say are the top 3 skills that needed to be a successful scientist? Why?
You need to be curious, and want to understand things you see and hear, otherwise there is no motivation. You need to be patient, because results don’t grow on trees (unfortunately!); and you need to be diligent, because it takes a lot of very meticulous, careful work to create good science.
I could add in 3 more quite easily, but these are perhaps personality traits: being personable, trusting and humble are beneficial. Science depends on collaborative relationships where you trust your partners and respect the limits of your knowledge and ability.
What is your favourite part of being a scientist?
Tackling challenging problems that are of global importance and that I genuinely care about, such as reducing greenhouse gas emissions, and then being able to convey the message of importance to colleagues, friends, family and the public in a manner that inspires them too.
What would you say is important when mentoring an early career researcher?
Giving them encouragement and opportunity to lead projects, allowing them to collaborate widely and be involved and/or make important decisions. I’m probably just leaving the “early-career” bracket, and the people I appreciate most are those who have empowered and trusted me to deliver outcomes and decisions beyond my level.
What are you most proud of working on to date?
I’ve worked on a range of high-profile and exciting projects, but perhaps my proudest outcomes have been associated with educational outreach, in particular the 4-week-long Nuffield placement students I take in each year. These placements are for A-Level students from underprivileged backgrounds, who come in during Summer holidays to experience university. I try to take 2 students into the group each Summer, and the students have been really excellent every year! We’ve made software contributions to a range of opensource packages, with the students leading the design elements, which was well beyond my expectations when the project started. The positivity and enthusiasm these students bring, and the happiness on their faces when their software merges are accepted, is really one of the most satisfying feelings as a supervisor and mentor.
What’s been your greatest scientific triumph to date?
I’m really proud of my own work on implementing very technical elements of algorithms for electronic structure theory, particularly meta-GGA density functionals and their derivatives, as these have had wide uptake in a broad community. Software development work is a slow return – this project took several years and is still yet to be written up – but the outcomes are considered “standard” for the many hundreds of users.
What’s been the biggest impact of the UK Catalysis Hub?
Connecting people. Within every institution that I’ve worked, there is an agenda to ensure a diverse academic body; whilst this brings forward new ideas through cross-disciplinary collaboration, it also means that sometimes the inspiration and critical mass for addressing discipline-specific challenges are missing. The interconnectivity of the Catalysis Hub has enabled me to interact with scientists who have similar interests from all over the globe, which has resulted in breakthroughs that could not have been achieved individually. A great aspect of the Hub’s interconnectivity is the combination of both academic and industrial researchers, meaning that the perspectives are broader and with a focus on the outcomes, rather than just the nuances that sometimes can become an academic obsession.
How can other groups interact with you?
Just come say hi! Or drop me an email or tweet. I’m human, so always happy to be distracted – ideally with coffee – for a chat, scientific or not!