Monday, 24 March 2014

Inside story: Dr Craig Butts - School of Chemistry

Interview by Melissa Levy

Dr Craig Butts is a reader for the school of Chemistry as well as a researcher in the area of structural and mechanistic chemistry, with special emphasis on Nuclear Magnetic Resonance. If you want any more information about what he and his group do then follow this link.

Q. Where did you go to university and what did you study?
“So I studied science at the University of Canterbury in New Zealand, I did a BSC honours in science and then majored in chemistry.”

Q. How did you get all the way from there in New Zealand to here at Bristol?
“I went into science in university basically because I had fun doing it at school! But up until I was about 16 I wanted to be an accountant (this was in the 1980’s and I wanted to be a yuppie (!)) [But] I suddenly realised that accountancy wasn't something I enjoyed a great deal and in fact I much preferred blowing things up in class. And so I went into science at university and…the bit that I really enjoyed was doing the research project in my final year, which made me want to carry on in academic research or in research at least. Particularly due to the encouragement of my supervisor who, about 6 weeks into my project basically just walked up and said “you obviously enjoy this, you’re good at it…do you want a PhD?”. The deal was if I got a first class honours then I could have a PhD place and so I then carried on to do my PhD with my project supervisor working on photochemical reaction mechanisms trying to work out how these photochemical reactions proceeded. In particular we were interested in nitration reactions using a compound that was only really studied in the 1950s as a rocket fuel adaptive by the Russians, tetranitromethane – it was hideous stuff… and we knew that it did this photochemical reaction but we wanted to know HOW it worked and why it worked, and the only evidence that there was in the literature we were pretty sure was wrong!  Near the end of my PhD realised that I hadn’t quite worked out what I wanted to do afterwards! In New Zealand there are not a lot of opportunities around for PhD trained chemists – which was a bit of an oversight on my part - but it never bothered me until that stage! 

So the first email I ever sent outside of the chemistry department in Canterbury was to Professor Rodger Alder here at Bristol and I basically said ‘What’s the deal? Are there any jobs over there? Can I get one?’ and he wrote back and said ‘yeah I’ve got some funding for a post-doctoral research post for 3 years’ and so I applied for that and got it…. I submitted the final draft of my PhD thesis on the morning and on the afternoon I got on a plane to Britain and started my postdoc!”

Q. How did you find his email address or him at all?
“How did I find his email address? I have no idea!! At that stage the web was really early on… I guess there must have been a Bristol website that I would have looked at but I knew to contact HIM because my PhD supervisor had sent students over to him in the past. Once I got over here my plan was always: come over to Britain for 3 years, get this postdoctoral experience which you had to have in order to go and become an academic there… and I never got around to leaving!  I was [now] 23 and I’d never had a job interview, so I applied for a temporary job at the university of Exeter as a lecturer thinking I’d never get it because I’m only 23 and I’ve no experience but I should at least have this practice! And blow me down if they didn’t offer me, not the job that was advertised… they actually gave the job to someone who was already at Exeter and I got his job. So yeah I got lucky basically! [When] I had just submitted the job application I went to the out to celebrate because I was just starting to think that I might actually stay in Britain. I went out to the pub on a Friday night and I started asking everyone in the pub (boys girls whatever) if they had a passport and if they would therefore marry me! And one of the people who walked into the pub subsequently married me! About 5 years later I mean she didn't agree to go out with me for another year! [So] I met my wife and got married and had kids and never quite got around to leaving. Simple as that! 

And then 2005 they closed the chemistry department at Exeter and at that stage I was contacted by my soon-to-be boss here and they said that they had a job here managing the NMR facility, so I took that. It wasn't actually an academic post and so I spent a couple of years getting back into an academic post here at the university and I've been going here ever since.”

Q. If you had to describe the research you do to someone who isn't an expert in chemistry how would you describe it?
“So what we do is primarily to work out the structure of chemicals and we use NMR spectroscopy to do this. NMR spectroscopy is basically the same thing as you do in MRI in hospitals, instead of doing it on a whole person we do it on a very small sample and we look at it on a molecule by molecule basis. My particular research interests are working out ways to better determine those structures and work out what shape they are and what size they are and how they are moving in solution and things like that.”

Q. And how would you describe your typical day?
“Ahh my days are very very varied!  So I split my time into three parts. One is running the NMR laboratory; so I manage the NMR laboratory and I have to, along with the technical staff, look after something like £3 million worth of NMR instruments (soon to be 4 million) and so I spend about a third of my day working with PhD students and post doc researchers who are using those instruments and have run into challenges and problems that they can’t solve without a bit of help, and trying to work out ways to get new instruments which have better or more capabilities. I spend about a third of my time doing research with my own group; so every morning 9 o’clock one of my group come in for their weekly meeting and we talk about how their research is going and what that’s doing. Then about a third of my time or so is spent doing all of the other things that come with academia so primarily teaching, both undergraduate where I teach to the chemistry students but also postgrad teaching which is aimed particularly at NMR spec and the more advanced applications of that to the huge variety of projects that we have in the university.  And then there’s the boring admin bits that we have to do as part of the job.”

Q. Do you have a favourite part of your job? If you had the choice would you chose JUST lecturing or JUST research?
“No… I’d chose to do all of them! To me research is a jigsaw puzzle, you’ve got a problem to solve and you have to know all the different ways of solving it.. Then you start with the corners you build up the edges and then you stick everything into the middle. That’s fascinating to me I mean I get to do that for a living – that’s great fun.  But it’s hard work, there are bits of it which are mind numbing and monotonous and so teaching is a completely different break from that. You get to stand up and get excited about what you do in front of a bunch of people, trying to get them to understand what you do and and why you do it and how you do it, hopefully to the point that at the end of that they know better than you do…I wouldn’t want to do one thing or the other really, if I did either full time I’d die! The paperwork [though] I could avoid quite merrily! “

Q. What do you do when you’re not at university? 
*laughing* “So there are three things I do when I’m not at university. First and foremost I’ve got three kids who are an absolute joy and I spend most of my time... well I’d like to say playing with them and teaching them and all the other things that parents are supposed to do but I think running around after them better describes it. Second thing, I’m a sports fanatic [and] I follow pretty much anything that involve a ball or a bat, so obviously football and rugby and cricket, and then when my wife can’t hear me on a Sunday night I’m often listening to American baseball and bizarre things like that. And the third thing I do is, sad to admit, research.... My research is a hobby for me, pretty much every day in some way fashion or form if I’m not on holiday I’ll be logging in to some of our spectrometers or checking what’s happening or I spend a lot of time talking to people in the states about different NMR techniques and tricks and tips that we can use. I’ve always looked at my job at being my hobby and so I have to come into the office to do my hobby sometimes and other times I get to do it from home.”

Q.What advice would you give to someone looking towards a career in science? Would you recommend academia?
“Absolutely! You have to have the right mind-set; you have to be the kind of person who likes puzzles and problems and likes long term challenges and targets. Academia is about saying ‘we’ve got this big long term goal, let’s start now to solve all the problems and the challenges on the way’ and that’s quite a hard thing to keep focused on over long periods of time. I've worked on projects that have taken over a decade to come to fruition, when they do come to fruition it’s a fantastic thing. I had a look at jobs in industry when I was younger and I just couldn’t do it! I couldn’t do that short term project focus that dominates in industry and commerce. [Academia] is hard work, particularly early on in academic careers, there are a lot of targets you have to achieve very quickly and at a very high level, and that’s very hard to do when you’re just starting out but it’s thoroughly enjoyable. I never ever (I keep telling people this it’s very sad) don’t want to come to work. I never sit here and think ‘oh it’s only 2 o’clock I’ve got another 3 hours before I get to go home’, never happens… I get ‘Oh it’s 4 o’clock I guess I have to leave!’ Not because I don’t want to leave *laughing* but because I have so many things to do and so many things I want to do.”

Q. If you could do science/research with anyone (dead or alive) who would it be?
“I want to do science with people who love science, who get as much enjoyment out of it as I do. To be honest I’m not interested in doing science with Einstein or Marie Curie (well particularly not Marie Curie…) or anything like that, I want to work with lots of people on lots of things and that’s one of the reasons I enjoy my job. I get to do chemistry with 250 side-kicks... Well I guess they’re not my side-kicks …. So I’m going to avoid the question and say that I want to keep on working with the people I’m working with, I mean I get to choose in my job who I work with what I work on when I work on it and to me is all part of the joy of it!”