That’s right. An exclusive interview with Dr Simon Banks prior to his departure from the department. If you are already missing the sound of his voice, read on and you might just hear it in your head. Other highlights include: some sage advise about taking a PhD and his favourite ‘office object’.
Hello Dr Banks, did you always want to be a scientist?
“Nope. In high school I wasn’t quite sure, I didn’t really know what I wanted to do. By the time i’d done my GCSE’s and A levels I wanted to be a medical doctor. I even got as far as doing medical foundation courses and work experience in hospitals.
I realised when I came to complete my UCAS application; that what I really liked about that (doctor) idea was the mental challenge; the problem solving, the diagnosis. I liked the concepts that were involved more than I liked the idea of getting down to the nitty gritty, the dirty work; treating people and dealing with the emotional side of ill health. My interest in those concepts is what led me to science.”
What did you study as an undergraduate and where?
“My undergraduate study was at UCL chemistry, MSci Chemistry.”
How did you come to choose your masters project?
“I had a very clear picture that I wanted to do theoretical work, I’d geared myself up for that in my third year with my optional choices, with a good idea of the people in the department that I might want to work with in terms of their research interests. So when the projects were advertised, I knew which people to look at in terms of the projects being advertised.”
Who inspired you most when you were at university?
“So I guess the person who ultimately became my PhD supervisor, Professor Steve Bramwell. He was a great source of inspiration throughout my PhD. Also before that, in his teaching and in his tutorials, the way that he approached the science. He was always somebody whose work I was drawn to. It’s really hard to single anybody out, because I was taught by many great people. To varying degrees they all gave me something that I benefitted from.
Another person who stands out, strangely, given that I shied away from organic chemistry very early on was William Motherwell. His approach to science, the way that he talked about it and his depth of knowledge was always very impressive. It made me want to achieve a similar philosophy of science.
Prof Mike Ewing. He inspired my love of thermodynamics, statistical mechanics and computer programming, all of which formed the basis for pretty much the whole of my academic life thereafter.
Prof David Clary – inspirational quantum mechanics lectures; excellent at teaching which is not always easy to master/give time to for someone with such a high profile research career.”
Are there any other people throughout history that have inspired you?
“I tend to be skeptical of pinning too much admiration on a person. I was always very impressed with Richard Feynman and the work he had done. I remember reading his lectures on physics and liking the style and the tone, but the more I learnt about him as a person the less I wanted to emulate him. I suppose my greatest inspiration in how I would approach work, life and so on would probably be much more closer to home, for example, my father.”
When you are not being a scientist, what are you being?
“OK, so there’s a deep philosophical question here; if you are a scientist, can you switch off being a scientist? And… I would argue that the answer is probably no. Because even when you are enjoying the things that life has to offer, like listening to a piece of music or watching a beautiful sunset, or whatever it might be, you still have your brain there, telling you things, which you know as a scientist are at the root of what’s going on, the way the music is created, the way sunset looks; these feed into your appreciation of that particular thing.
So I don’t think I ever turn off being a scientist.”
And if your trying purposely to think about something else?
“For me it’s sport primarily. I play a lot of tennis and squash and I run. I find that running gives you a lot of time to think, but tennis and squash let me switch my mind off from other things. There are also the standard answers, that I often read on UCAS forms, like listening to good music or reading a good book, these are universal but for me primarily it’s sport.”
Who would be your ideal tennis partner?
“I’d happily have a hit with Federer but I can’t imagine it would last very for very long.”
What is the most rewarding part of your job?
“At the moment, being departmental tutor, I see a lot of students who are having issues with their studies be it academic or otherwise, who may want guidance. It’s very nice to see students who’ve requested guidance and have then been able to go on and deal with their particular obstacle.
The teaching side of things,whether in tutorials or lectures. I get to talk about things that I genuinely find interesting and I get the sense that sometimes someone in the room actually sees why I find it so fascinating, who may go away and try to find out more about it, they go away and realise there’s something in this. Then there’s the research, which now I do less of. There’s nothing quite so nice, as a theoretician, than to make a prediction and to see it tested experimentally or numerically. To get confirmation of the prediction is a real buzz.”
Did you expect to find the position rewarding in that way?
“No. Apart from the teaching and the research which have rather obvious rewards. Incidentally research should never be done in isolation. If you are working on a research project, the only way to make it fun and interesting is to collaborate, it’s only in the collaboration that you get the joy. I didn’t anticipate that I would find the pastoral guidance of students so rewarding, I didn’t really ever envisage doing it but came to it through the positions i’ve held.”
What do you dislike about your job?
“The things I dislike as so far outweighed by the things I enjoy that I tend not to dwell on the former.
Have you worked at any other universities?
“Yes, I worked at the University of Oxford.”
How did it compare to working here at UCL?
“It was different. It’s difficult to compare like for like because I did a very different job there. At Oxford, I was a post Doc. then a research fellow, I only spent a small time teaching and most of my time was spent doing research. The ‘job’ I do here and did there are like chalk and cheese.”
How have you found the working environment at UCL?
“So, I was here as a student, then returned as a member of staff, I love UCL, i’ve got a great fondness for it and i’ve found its a very good place to work.”
Have you ever worked in industry?
Do you have any desire to?
So, your entire career will be in…?
“Academia. It’s horses for courses. Some people get a great deal from spending some time in industry and then coming back into academia and bring a lot of knowledge and skills with them. Other people start out in industry and migrate into academia and for some people their natural home is on one or the other, and for me it’s definitely in academia.”
What is it about industry that you know you wouldn’t like?
“It’s very hard to say … don’t knock it till you’ve tried it, but.. I like the concept of education; passing on knowledge, interacting with students. I’ve moved into a role that involves more teaching, I would have never really have wanted to go in the other direction, into a role that was 100% research. For me, one of the reasons to work in a university is to interact with students and to be involved in teaching.”
Here we are in your office. Are there any objects in here of special significance?
“There’s a book up there, Volume 1 of the works of Gibbs. That used to belong to Maxwell McGlashan, an ex head of department. It was handed down and became the property of Professor Mike Ewing and he has bequeathed it to me. It’s a fantastic work of science and means a great deal to me because its an area of science that i’ve done a lot of work on; it’s the foundation of thermodynamics. The history of that book, going through the generations at UCL, is quite important to me.”
What is your motivation to leave the UCL chemistry department?
“I think its always good in any career to keep challenging yourself and keep moving forward, a new role came up that interested me very much, something a little bit different, these roles don’t come up very often so it might not come round again… it’s a natural evolution.”
Do you have any advice for those pondering on what to do after graduation?
“If you’re thinking about carrying on in academia, as an option to tide you over whilst you figure what you want to do, you need to give careful consideration to what’s involved in doing a PhD.
It’s a really non trivial thing to do, you need to be committed you need to put in a lot of work. When it comes to writing a PhD thesis, talk to any post grad. writing one up, it’s a hard task. Students who are good undergraduates do not always make good postgraduates, its a very different set of skills, 100% of time is spent on research and its very different to studying a module and doing well in an exam.
I can’t advise students as a global entity because everybody’s different but people who choose to go into industry or into the world of work tend to do so as part of an active decision. Students who go the other way, can do so actively or passively, it’s a familiar environment, they don’t know what else to do, they are good students, so its comfortable to just keep going. If you feel as though you might be in the passively inclined bracket, talk to people, talk to PhD students and potential supervisors, try and get a realistic impression of whats involved, so you don’t commit to something that you may not really want to do. When you’ve got all the information, make your decision and do it actively.
Thank you Dr Banks and Farewell