Posted by Professor Saiful Islam on 21 December 2016
What made you want to present the Royal Institution's Christmas Lectures?
Believe it or not when I was asked to present the Christmas Lectures my initial reaction was to say no! I was reluctant not only to take time out from my active research, but also to take up the rather intimidating mantle of Christmas Lecturer. It was the persuasive words of a colleague that helped change my mind, after pointing out that turning it down would be a decision I would regret for the rest of my life.
It's a huge honour - but partly terrifying - to add myself to an alumni list which includes Michael Faraday, David Attenborough, Richard Dawkins, Nancy Rothwell and Carl Sagan, among others.
What's your earliest memory of the Christmas Lectures?
I grew up in Crouch End in London, within walking distance of Alexandra Palace where the BBC broadcast the CHRISTMAS LECTURES from for the very first time on 22 December 1936. I could see 'Ally Pally' from my bedroom window!
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.
What's the importance of public engagement in science?
I think it's incredibly important. Science can be tricky, but its rewards are huge: engaging with it on every level is a journey that's full of wonder and exciting discovery. Another great thing about science is that it allows you to keep asking questions. It isn't just about learning facts, but trying to answer those challenging questions about the world around you.
My own experience watching the Christmas Lectures as a child gave me a strong sense of the importance of scientific knowledge in understanding the world, and it's that kind of engagement with science that can really enrich people's understanding of the world - I would love for the audience to come to a similar realisation over the course of my Lectures.
Do you have past experience of presenting to children?
Only a couple of weeks ago I had to give a schools' lecture to 900 sixth formers all wearing 3D glasses, which was great fun. I give general talks and am involved with science festivals to make science more exciting, understandable and relevant to the general public and school pupils.
I'd be delighted if my contribution as this year's Christmas Lecturer encouraged younger generations to stay in science. When giving talks in schools I always try to emphasise that they should always follow their passion, but also put in the hard work.
You served a term on the Diversity Committee of the Royal Society. What are your thoughts on encouraging a better diversity balance in science?
I'm a firm believer that innovation and creativity in science are strengthened by ensuring diversity across its activities. Increasing participation from all people regardless of gender, race and background ensures that talent is drawn from the largest pool possible. Sadly, some groups are currently seriously underrepresented in science. I was proud to help raise awareness of this issue as a member of the Royal Society's Diversity Committee over the last three years. And I hope I continue to do so throughout my public engagement work.
Much of your research focuses on computer modelling for green energy sources, such as solar cells. What challenges must we overcome before we can break our dependence on fossil fuels? (Is this ever possible?)
You could say that energy, and getting enough of it is one of the biggest challenges facing the human race. Currently we get it mostly from fossil fuels: coal, gas and oil. The problem with that is that it causes lots of CO2 emissions and global warming, leading to climate change. The challenge - and it's an interesting one - is looking for cleaner sustainable alternatives.
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!
Do you remember your first EPSRC grant? (and what was it on?)
I became a university lecturer at the University of Surrey in 1990 and my first EPSRC grant (back when EPSRC was called SERC, the Science and Engineering Research Council) was to do with high temperature superconductors. It was a really hot topic - both literally and metaphorically - because of the discovery in 1986 or '87 of new copper oxide based compounds that were showing dramatically higher temperatures for a superconductor. It was an exciting period for those types of materials, which are of course energy related.
What support do you receive from EPSRC now?
I'm very fortunate in that I've received significant EPSRC support, for which I'm grateful. One EPSRC programme grant which I lead at the moment is called Energy Materials - Computational Solutions, in which we're using very sophisticated computer simulation techniques to look at arrange of new materials in the clean energy area. That includes solar cells, lithium batteries and fuel cells.
The other grant is part of is a successful EPSRC flagship programme called Supergen. I'm part of a hub called the energy storage hub, which looks at different technologies dealing with energy storage, particularly for renewables. When the wind isn't blowing and when the sun isn't shining we do need energy storage. That hub is looking at a range of different technologies.
How will you be spending Christmas?
My Christmas will involve being with family and friends, giving out cards and presents, and eating too much food and chocolate. And of course watching the Royal Institution's Christmas Lectures on TV, but this year with a tinge of nervous energy about how they'll be received!
Do you have any New Year's resolutions?
Nowadays I tend to avoid making New Year's resolutions because I never seem to fulfil them unless they're manageable. I think after doing the Christmas Lectures it will be to have a relaxing, fun time back with the family seeing as I've neglected them for the last two or three weeks!
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Professor Saiful Islam
Professor of Materials Chemistry
University of Bath
Saiful is Professor of Materials Chemistry at the University of Bath, having previously completed a Chemistry degree and PhD at University College London, a postdoctoral fellowship on oxide superconductors at the Eastman Kodak Labs in Rochester, New York, USA, and a lectureship at the University of Surrey. His research interests include computer modelling of new materials for lithium and sodium batteries, solid oxide fuel cells and perovskite solar cells.