When I started my PhD in the Instrumental Analysis Group, my supervisors and colleagues of the lab told me that it was really good to experience a short stay abroad during this period. I felt sure about that at the end of last year and, from September 15 to December 15, I am enjoying and learning so much in the Warwick Electrochemistry & Interfaces Group of the University of Warwick, Coventry, United Kingdom.
I was lucky to meet the founder of the group, Patrick Unwin, in the last XXXV Meeting of the Electrochemistry Group of the Spanish Royal Society of Electrochemistry which took place in Burgos last July. He gave a fantastic plenary lecture. We could talk a long time and I could feel a very close, friendly and enthusiastic person.
Patrick Unwin is a very busy person but this fact has not prevented him to take a while for this interview for the blog. He has lots of interesting things to tell you! You know that in this section of the blog I want to show you people who develop their work around Chemistry and with Chemistry. Pat Unwin is definitively one of them!
I would like to briefly introduce this renowned scientist. You can find more information in his biography.
Pat Unwin founded the Warwick Electrochemistry & Interfaces Group (WEIG) in 1992, which now heads with Julie Macpherson. He is Professor of Chemistry at University of Warwick since 1998. At present, Pat Unwin is the author of more than three hundred papers, patents and book chapters, always looking for the quality, creativity and innovation. He is also co-editor of the Journal of Electroanalytical Chemistry. His scientific career has been linked to different places including Liverpool, Oxford, Austin and Warwick. He has worked with recognized researchers like Richard Compton and Allen Bard. As you can imagine, Pat Unwin is usually invited to write book chapters, to speak in key meetings and to collaborate internationally.
Pat Unwin is the winner of numerous awards for his research. He is known for developing new techniques to obtain novel results with plenty of applications. Chemistry, Physics and Life Sciences are present in his multidisciplinary work. Broadly, electrochemistry, physicochemical processes and multi-functional imaging techniques are some examples of the main lines of the current WEIG work. In this moment, they are focused in the development of high resolution probes and in the use of really promising techniques like Scanning ElectroChemical Cell Microscope. There is no doubt that they are world-leading in high resolution electrochemical imaging. By the way, many experimental techniques developed by them have been adopted by other research groups and several industries have interacted with the group to obtain relevant data, demonstrating the good relationship among all of them.
Sharing talks and labs with Pat Unwin and Warwick Electrochemistry & Interfaces Group is a wonderful experience. Now, you can read the full interview that I have done to Pat, one of the most recognized scientists in the world. I am truly grateful, Pat.
Read and enjoy!
Perhaps the first question is not the easiest. Why Science?
I think Science is a very creative activity. That’s why I enjoy it a lot. Not only that, but it is also very wide and limitless in its possibilities. Actually, we often think that arts are very creative but Science can be, at least, as creative if not more creative.
What are your best memories as a student of Chemistry?
Well, as an undergraduate I really enjoyed discovering and understanding new concepts. Also, I had some good friends who were studying Chemistry and I think we had some really excellent discussions together which really helped us all understand. These days, this is what is called peer-to-peer learning. Actually, we were doing that a long time ago informally. We really enjoyed solving problems together and developing understanding of new concepts.
Did your friends follow your path?
About my two closest colleagues, Andy Plant is Head of Chemistry at Syngenta and Dave Williams is an academic at Sheffield University.
What are the greatest achievements you have earned to get where you are?
First of all, I would say that it is important to really follow what are you interested in, that is the most important. Also, you have to travel, you have to have an open mind and pursue things that you believe are going to have a very lasting value. You never stop learning and revising ideas.
What are the main advantages of receiving higher education?
These days that is a very tough question to answer because in the UK students have significant economic pressures to study in higher education. You have to think quite seriously about whether this is for you. If you believe higher education is for you, there will be obviously a lot of advantages. I think that actually the idea of university is a place where you can come and interchange ideas, freely, with other people. That is really important, really important. In addition to the qualifications and knowledge that you get by having higher education, the experience of developing ideas is perhaps more important. You can think about things in a different kind of way.
What do the PhD studies offer to you?
I think it is great opportunity for being focused on a particular topic or a particular problem, free from lots of distractions that you might have at the undergraduate, like exams! or things like that. You can be really focused. The opportunity is there and you can make of it what you want. I would say that you can get a lot from studying a PhD, but that you have to put a lot into it.
What do you request to a student of your research group?
I would like people to be enthusiastic, to want to contribute to the research group, to be prepared to explore a lot, to come up with new ideas and to be as creative as possible. Great marks do not matter too much.
Are only chemists in your group?
One of the great things of our group is that we have a lot of talented students from outside Chemistry: from Mathematics and from Computer Sciences, for example. Those students add a lot to the group in terms of raising the level we work at modelling and the analysis of data. Their contribution is invaluable.
Could you explain your current research in less than two minutes?
As you know, our research is really focused on trying to understand surfaces and interfaces. Surfaces are all around us in the world: electrodes, solar cells, batteries, cells, body functions (for example, in cardiovascular system), corrosion… Their huge natural and practical importance is unquestionable. There are some great technological, natural and fundamental questions to be answered. What people may see increasingly is that there are amazing pictures of surfaces and structure but we are missing pictures about the dynamics. To solve that, our group is building and using microscopes which can visualize dynamics so we have extra dimensions to really understand the functioning of surfaces and interfaces.
How important is research to teach in a proper way?
I think it is very important. As I get older, I enjoy teaching increasingly. A research perspective is very important because it just means that you can really bring in the latest developments that you know about, maybe from colleagues of other universities, from outside your field, as well as using examples from your own university. I think it is a very good way to get across, sometimes, quite difficult (and old) concepts by using some modern application examples. My feeling is that students are quite interested when you talk about something that it is a very attractive application of a particular concept.
Scientific results are long-term projects. What can we do to show their importance to society?
I agree that they are long-term projects. I think it is probably about being prepared to have a long dialogue, and to explain the research like a story that is continually evolving. I think it is also important to explain how research develops, and give an idea about the picture about why, in an holistic way, you are interested in doing what are you doing. It is important to show the practical applications, but I think it is also important to not be only driven by practical applications. We have to explain to people why understanding is important because we need to comprehend the world we live in and know more about natural phenomena to know more about ourselves.
What are the positive aspects of the research at the University of Warwick you highlight?
I think that University of Warwick is a good place for collaborative work, particularly between different disciplines. We have been really at the forefront of multidisciplinary research: Physical Sciences, Engineering, Life Sciences, but also with important activities between Sciences and Social Sciences. You can see several things that are going on with collaborative research about the impact of Science on Art, nanomaterials which might be used in sculpture and similar things. Another good thing is that the University of Warwick has a very flat structure that means it is not too hierarchical and I think that is good. There are good interactions between staff and students.
Do you collaborate with companies? What is the best about it?
Yes, we collaborate with companies. I started collaborating with companies from the start of my career because I believe that problems of a practical nature can sometimes be very challenging and the solutions that you need for those practical problems can be very beneficial for fundamental research. People often say that they do the fundamental research and then they apply it to a practical problem, but actually it can work just as well the other way round because sometimes these practical problems are so complex and you have to come up with a very elegant approach that is benefit to fundamental situations.
Do you have any initiative to bring Science and Chemistry to society of your city?
In our department we have excellent outreach activities led by Nick Barker. He interacts particularly with school children and we interact with thousands of school children every year. In our own group, for example, we have hosted projects for local school children who come to do research.
The last question! What do you think about Spanish Science?
I have been impressed. Seriously, I had many students from Spain who came either for short visits like for a few months, or to do PhD or to do PostDoc. I have found all to be extremely highly educated, to have very good background and also to be very enthusiastic and very hardworking. I have many very positive experiences. I can see that the Spanish education system is working very well. Students in Chemistry seem to have a good background in Mathematics and analysis. They seem to be very cultured and they also appreciate other things like arts, good food and things like these which are also important! I think that future of Science in Spain could be very successful if you have the right politicians. Spaniards are very good people.
Do you want to add something?
Nothing to add. Just thank you for interviewing me!
Thank you very much Pat. It is an honour for me.
Both: Thank you very much.
I really want to thank Pat for allowing me to do this three-month stay during my PhD in Warwick Electrochemistry & Interfaces Group and for this amazing moment and to all the members of the group for the fantastic welcome and for looking after me so well!
I feel lucky, Pat! Thanks a lot!