Saturday, 21 June 2014

Inside story: Professor Andrew Orr-Ewing - School of Chemistry

Interview by Melissa Levy

Q. Where did you go to university and what did you study?
I went to university in Oxford where I studied both an undergraduate degree in chemistry and also for my PhD in chemistry, so I was there a total of 7 years.

Q. How did you get from there to where you are now in Bristol?
When I finished in Oxford I went to work for two years at Stanford University in California which was a great experience as I worked with a very eminent professor there. Then I started thinking about my future and so I applied for something called a Royal Society University Research Fellowship which is a way in which you can move back to an academic position in the UK while having a lot of freedom as to where you go. It also gives you a chance to focus on your research. I was very fortunate in securing one of those which I chose to hold at Bristol. I didn't really know Bristol at the time, but I knew of some very good people here who I wanted to work alongside and so I selected Bristol as the best place to come to. I’ve never regretted that decision, it has turned out very well for me!

Q. How would you describe your research to someone who’s never studied chemistry?
There is quite a lot of different activity in my group but the connecting theme is that we use lasers to study interesting chemical processes, and those vary!
One of the things we do is look at gases in the earth’s atmosphere; either detect them at very low concentration with sophisticated laser spectroscopy methods or we study how these molecules react in the presence of sunlight. So we look at the photochemistry that is driven by sunlight and we quantify that in terms of rate constants and things like that. That’s one aspect of the work that we do!

The other work is much more fundamental. What we try to understand is how chemical reactions happen, and in the past four or five years we’ve started to ask how that happens in liquids which is a really complicated question because the molecules in liquids are colliding over very short time scales.  We use very fancy laser equipment which generates pulses of about 10-14 seconds in duration to follow chemistry as it’s happening in liquids. So what we do is really just infrared spectroscopy but on ridiculously short time scales and that allows us to follow chemical reactions in real time.

Q. How would you describe your typical day in the lab/at university in general?
Unfortunately I don’t spend very much time in the lab these days, just the nature of the job really – as you get older you tend to spend less time in the lab and more time in your office, so my research group do most of the activity in the lab these days.

But days are really varied, I do lots of different things so I don’t generally have a rigid plan. I come in and there’s always a pile of things that need doing; that might be writing papers, or it might be working on a PhD thesis draft that a student has sent me, or it might be refereeing a paper or a grant application, or it might be preparing for some teaching that I have to do that day. That’s one of the really nice things about the job – it’s very varied and it’s always intellectually challenging, so I’m happy to come in in the mornings. I do like to start quite early, it’s peaceful then and I can concentrate before all the interruptions start! The downside of it is what comes in on the email that you’re not expecting because that can disrupt any plans that you might have for the day.

But really it’s the variety that keeps most of us interested!

Q. If you had the choice to just do research instead of all of the other things you do as well, what would you choose?
I think that the teaching is a very important part of the job and it’s a part that I enjoy greatly. It’s very satisfying to be able to communicate things that excite you to other people and I wouldn't want to do a job that just involves pure research. The bit of the job that most of us don’t like is the more administrative side, it’s the more tedious aspect but it’s very necessary. But in general, the teaching is great fun and the research is great fun and for that reason I wouldn't want to be a pure researcher. Interacting with keen young students is one of the more rewarding aspects of the job.

Q. What advice would you give someone looking for a career in science?
Academic careers can be a challenging path, because there are a limited number of job opportunities in universities to hold teaching and research positions. As a result, you have to know that you really want to go down that path and be prepared to be patient for a good position to open up. But studying for a science degree and doing research for a PhD creates lots of other opportunities too, in industry or many other areas where you can apply your scientific knowledge. Increasingly these days in things like environmental consultancy. I’d never discourage someone from studying science! I think it opens your eyes to a lot of important questions in the world around us and allows you to understand really significant issues, such as climate change. 

Q. If you could do research with anyone, dead or alive, who would it be?
That’s a tricky one! I’ve been very fortunate to work with some really talented scientists and that is extremely stimulating, you learn something from everyone you engage with. When you’re an active researcher you go to conferences and you mix with lots of scientists and learn something from all of these people. Often you’re in awe of how clever they are and how much they know that you don’t think you understand, which is a great motivation to keep educating yourself.
But I’m not really interested in celebrity science, so I don’t see that I would want to work with one of the greats of the past. I’m more interested with working with people who are enthusiastic and motivated and share my passion for particular areas of science.

So I’m going to dodge the question a bit and say that I’m really happy with the people that I work with here, both in my research group and my colleagues, who keep me interested in the work that we’re doing all the time – in terms of enjoying research, that’s definitely the way to do it.