SATNAV interview Professor David Phillips
Professor David Phillips CBE FRS, Past President of the Royal Society of Chemistry and University of Birmingham alumnus, gave the 2018 EPS Distinguished Lecture. His lecture, entitled "Light Up Your Life" saw him share his personal journey from raw Birmingham undergraduate in 1958 through an extremely successful and fulfilling academic career in photochemistry. He gave a flavour of his research in ultrafast reactions and photodynamic therapy of cancer, and even threw in a few demonstrations while recounting tales of his student days, successes and set-backs. Here you can see SATNAV Magazine’s coverage of the lecture and roundtable discussion, as well as their exclusive interview:
To kick off the evening, SATNAV met with Professor David Phillips for an exclusive interview:
A group of 11 science and engineering students sat down with Professor Phillips to find out more about his illuminating life and career. The roundtable discussion focused on David’s opinion of the changing landscape of higher education, and his time spent working abroad (especially in the USA and USSR). As a proud Birmingham alumnus and long-standing academic, David began by reflecting on his time as a chemistry student 60 years ago. He acknowledged the differences between then and now: only a 5% minority of young people held a university degree, compared to 45% nowadays. As advice to the current generation of young adults, David emphasised the importance of “selling yourself well” and “not to neglect other attributes that you have — be it sportsman, musician or linguist — as assets that should come to the fore”. Moreover he remarked that “the UK has lost sight of the role of technicians within its scientific community”, highlighting that the skills of a scientist and a technician are very different, complementary and equally important. He feels passionately about the issue and had campaigned for better promotion of technical careers (alongside scientific ones) when he was President of the Royal Society of Chemistry.
Recalling his time in the Soviet Union he gave the unique perspective of a westerner in Russia during the height of the cold war. When asked about the similarities and differences between studying in the UK and in Soviet Russia, he addressed the lack of equipment available to academics (due to sanctions) and how institutions suffered as a result — an often overlooked side-effect of living in a politically tense era. David also described some of the more unexpected aspects of his time in the USSR. For instance, being taught Russian, using the Russian State Library despite their strict policies on checking out books, and more daunting aspects such as being "the only Westerner working in an institute of 2,000 people". It was more-so these cultural changes that he had to become accustomed to, as he found the science itself to be fairly universal with few differences in practice. Despite these difficulties, David spoke highly of his time abroad and gave the overwhelming impression to the students that these rare opportunities shouldn't be missed.
Lecture: Light up Your Life
The lecture was recorded in full for your enjoyment:
As Professor Phillips began setting up for his lecture, familiar faces filed in. The front row of the theatre was soon filled by the Class of 1961; David’s peers from his time at the University of Birmingham. Surrounded by old friends, David began the lecture by reminiscing about his time at Birmingham with old photos of the campus and community. He gave both heartfelt and amusing anecdotes; for example, as dedicated chemists David and his peers used to sneak back into the Haworth Building in the evenings through an open window to work on their experiments!
His career in chemistry took him from Birmingham to Texas, and then to the Academy of Sciences of the USSR in Moscow where he worked on producing light from dyes. To demonstrate a modern application of this, David began throwing glow sticks to members of the audience! Having completely immersed himself in the Russian culture David told us stories of dancing with Bolshoi ballerinas, and of colleagues with impressive tolerances for vodka! He then returned to the UK to work as a professor at the University of Southampton, before moving to the Royal Institution and finally to Imperial College London where he has been for 28 years.
David went on to demonstrate some of the applications of photochemistry. He showed the fluorescence induced by electrical current by holding a fluorescent light tube against a plasma ball lamp, causing it to glow only up to where he was holding it. He also talked about his work in medicine, particularly in photodynamic therapy cancer treatment where dye is injected into the body and irradiated, causing it to become toxic and kill cancer cells. A particularly amusing demonstration involved a glass baby filled with the yellow chemical bilirubin that, in excess, is responsible for jaundice. David showed that it is not normally water soluble by filling the baby with water and shaking vigorously, noting that the liquids didn’t mix. However, after irradiating it with blue light, the bilirubin dissolved in the water and was able to be flushed out. This is how jaundice is cured in newborns.
He then gave us an insight into some of his career highlights including being invited to lunch at Buckingham Palace, signing the Royal Society Charter Book and giving a lecture to over a thousand people in Berlin. David ended his lecture with some words of inspiration: enjoy life, do what you’re interested in rather than taking the safe options, and seize the opportunities that come your way.
The lecture then drew to a close and both speaker and attendees filed down to the Haworth Building foyer for a drinks reception and a chance to discuss the lecture. The space was buzzing with energy from David's exploration into his life, and he had clearly struck a chord with scientists and non-scientists alike. Towards the end of term when students were starting to feel the stress of impending deadlines, it was amazing to see how David had reinvigorated their love for science. He made his field of work sound accessible, fascinating and truly fun! One attendee told SATNAV the following: "When he told stories of his life it felt like I was there with him. It's made me so excited to see where science might take me."
SATNAV would like to thank David Phillips and the EPS Community team for the opportunity to get involved with this incredible evening.
To find out more about the EPS Distinguished Lecture Series, including recordings of previous events, visit www.birmingham.ac.uk/eps/distinguished.