Harry Bhadeshia: life as a scientist

Professor Harry Bhadeshia speaks about his work in the metallurgy of steels; his childhood in Kenya and migration to the UK; his first job at the British Oxygen Company; racism in London in the 1970s; and what he thinks makes a scientist.

My name is Harry Bhadeshia and I’m the Tata Steel Professor of Metallurgy at the University of Cambridge.  My main area of interest is the metallurgy of steels.  Steels represent one of the most complex of materials with an almost infinite variety of structures that can be generated by altering the chemical composition or the processing route, and we have yet to discover many more techniques for improving the quality of steels. [0:32] If you go to the Channel Tunnel then the train will be going over the rails still that I invented, totally by using theory, okay.  Then there is the latest, which is the super bainitic armour.  That is built on the foundations of a very, very long piece of research going on for more than thirty years, where we tried to understand the mechanisms of a particular crystalline form called bainite.  We now have the world’s first bulk nanostructured steel, one of the applications of which is this superb armour. [1:14]  I was born in Nairobi, which is the capital of Kenya, and my parents were born in India but they emigrated to Kenya for work.  So traditionally my family comes from the carpenter caste, so in other words skilled craftspeople.  And the Kenyan authorities needed such people in order to do construction of buildings, hotels, etc, so they encouraged people to emigrate from India to Kenya, and that’s when my parents moved in, very young and newly married. [1:49]  And my interest in science was inspired actually by going to my father’s workplace.  He used to work in a battery shop basically, Exide Batteries.  And of course they didn’t make the batteries there but you could see all the components of the batteries, how you test them to see whether they’ve reached the end of their lives.  There were acids and various other chemicals.  You could measure the specific gravity of the fluid inside the battery and so on.  So he also had a book at home called the Lead Acid Storage Battery, which I was able to study as best as I could.  But it really got me hooked into science.  And I had basically a chemistry set and a skeleton and all sorts of things that children can buy to practise science, a little microscope and so on. [2:41] Then after independence, the Kenyan government decided that it would have a Kenyanisation policy and therefore those people who are not citizens of Kenya would steadily lose their jobs.  So we had no choice but to apply for emigration to Britain and in 1970 we were granted permission to emigrate and we moved to London, living on top of a shop in East Ham.  So when we moved to Britain I was about sixteen years old and I applied for a job at the British Oxygen Company as a technician in a quality control laboratory, even though I had absolutely no experience of any – any work before then.  And I got the job at the British Oxygen Company.  There was a human resources person, whose name unfortunately I forget, but he suggested to me that I should do part time studies, which involved one day a week and an evening a week.  So they would give me time off for a day to attend the East Ham College of Technology so that I could do ordinary national sciences, a certificate in ordinary national sciences, and I did chemistry, physics and maths.  And I did very well in that.  So if you get distinctions in ONC, that’s equivalent to A levels. [4:13] So thinking once again about the kind person from human resources who basically changed the course of my life, it was especially touching because at that time there was lot of – certainly in East London there was a lot of resentment against immigration, because people thought they were taking their jobs and, you know, you look different therefore there’s something to talk about [laughs].  So we had the National Front, for example, quite active in East Ham and the surrounding area, Dagenham and so forth.  So it was in that environment, when a person who is white comes to help you, that’s actually quite – gives you confidence in human beings, basically. [5:03] I think that if you’re at all curious and you’re willing to take that curiosity forward, in science there are no barriers as to where you come from, what your background is, what your nationality is or what your age is.  You basically try and pursue your curiosity to some goal and once you succeed, you know, it drives you forward.

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