Meet our new Head of School: Professor Nigel Mason OBE

Our new Head of School tackles our “Meet the Staff” questions

Every month we will be asking a member of SPS to tell us a bit more about themselves, giving you some more insight into what makes them tick. To kick things off Professor Nigel Mason OBE answers our questions.

But first, a word from our new Head of School:

I am delighted to join the School of Physical Sciences (SPS) at, what I believe, is an extremely exciting time in its history. SPS has a rich heritage, both in leading research and teaching, but the last decade has seen further change with the restoration of chemistry both as a teaching and research discipline, the expansion of physics and astronomy and the continued development of our nationally leading forensic science programme.

“We currently have our largest ever number of students and largest number of academic staff, many of whom are in the earlier stages of their career – with all the potential and enthusiasm that this brings. The University of Kent is similarly enjoying a period of exciting development with the opening of its Medical School in 2019 and the strategic mission to foster its Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM), to be recognised as a STEM leader both Nationally and Internationally.

“The opportunity to lead SPS forward with such an agenda and work with a staff so clearly dedicated to the success of the School is an honour I could not refuse. So to take an often used slogan, but one that is highly appropriate for what I wish to see in my term of office, ‘Forward together’.”

Now read Nigel’s responses to our questions:

1.Three words to describe myself

Enthusiastic; Optimistic and Strategic

2. What inspires you in your work?

The continuing search for new scientific knowledge (we still know far less than we think we do) and working within consortia that bring people together with different backgrounds and cultures. I am consistently inspired by early career scientists who have the enthusiasm and desire to do new things and have the belief that they can ‘make a difference’.

3. When did you first realise your interest/passion for Astronomy and Planetary Science?

I was born into science. My father as a famous scientist, the world’s first Professor of Cloud Physics, he even has an equation named after him on how raindrops grow in a cloud. With him, every day out was a science adventure as we discussed the world around us. He also taught me much about leadership (he was Director General of the Meteorological Office Treasurer of Royal Society, Chancellor of UMIST and (literally) a cupboard of Honorary degrees) and working with people, in particular the need to respect everyone in the team/organisation. But most of all I recall his advice – ‘Every 7 years look to do something new! Challenge yourself and never assume you know it all – Science tells you, you don’t!’ So I started in atomic and molecular physics then studied atmospheric chemistry before moving into astrochemistry and planetary science whilst continuing research in plasma physics and nanotechnology. Today I also work on radiation chemistry which has led into new methods for cancer radiotherapy. What next? I plan to explore the atomic and molecular physics of combustion.

4. What would you say was your greatest achievement in your research?

That is for others to say. I think if I have any expertise it is to see how fundamental atomic and molecular physics, particularly ‘electron collisions’ may explain phenomena and develop new methods in applied sciences (astrochemistry, planetary, radiation chemistry and nanotechnology). However, I hope that my greatest achievement is yet to come –  that is why I continue to do research.

5. What areas would you like to see progress in research for the School of Physical Sciences?

As HoS I want to see all our research progress and will support all staff in their ambition. Personally I look forward to expanding my own research in astrochemistry and planetary science by working with the ‘Impact team’ and light gas gun. I am also interested in bringing my experience in analytical tools into developing forensics research. However in joining a new Institution I look forward to fostering new collaborations with new colleagues in SPS and beyond.

6. Why did you choose to come to the School of Physical Sciences? 

The opportunity to assist in the development of SPS and ensure it fulfils its great potential to be a centre of excellence in research, teaching and public engagement. Personally to also collaborate with new colleagues in new research areas.

7. What has been a personal highlight for you in teaching?

Developing the first Environmental Physics course at UCL. I taught it for 7 years and with some excellent colleagues wrote the text book!

8. Which other areas of research would you personally like to study?

As I said above I like to explore new areas. Today using atomic and molecular physics to understand radiation damage in cells and explore new methods for cancer therapy. The discovery of the role of electron collisions in understanding the physics and chemistry of comets brings me back to my PhD/Postdoc days, and the new area – combustion. Did you know if you remove free electrons in a flame it goes out and that explains why we use halogen fire extinguishers?

9. What are your proudest achievements inside and outside of your work?

Fostering and building scientific communities e.g. the Europlanet Society launched this month. Outside science adopting our daughter Megan (12 in October going on 16!) Adoption changes lives of both child and parents but we have given a very special girl (young lady) the opportunity to fulfil her potential – GO MEGAN and she has made my wife Jane and I see the world differently.

10. What has been your greatest challenge?

Learning to accept failure – we all fail but in science it is often very personal. You need good friends to see you through the bad times and I have been lucky to have them when I needed them and of course my wife, Jane.

11. If you could pick anyone throughout history, to discuss their research in physical sciences, who would it be and why?

In science – Those who persevered and who followed their belief even when told they were wrong ! For example, Champollion who deciphered Egyptian hieroglyphs on the Rosetta stone, and Napoleon to understand how he led men and what his real vision for the world was.

12. Anything else you want to tell us about yourself?

Following the above my ‘hobby’ is military history and in particular the French Revolution and Napoleonic wars, being an expert in that period known as 100 days with the Battle of Waterloo.  Indeed, if I can have my ashes scattered anywhere it would be on that battlefield! Look out for related quotations in my SPS bulletins.

 

Thank you Nigel for your time, and welcome to SPS!

 

Remember, if you’d like to feature in our monthly “Meet the Staff” feature, please get in touch with Katherine and Amy at spsmarketing@kent.ac.uk.