Mark Richards: life as a scientist

Dr Mark Richards talks about his life as a scientist, describing an early interest in science, his interest in music, studying for his PhD, his year in industry and how the commercial experience helped in his research and his own business, and the importance of keeping his roots.

I’m Mark Richards.  I’m a senior teaching fellow at the department of physics at Imperial College.  My – by way of background, I’m an atmospheric physicist and my research interests include air pollution and wireless air sensing networks. So I was born in Nottingham in 1970.  My parents came over from Jamaica in the ‘60s and essentially they were hard working parents.  My father was a picture framer and carpenter.  My mother was a nurse.  My father left when I was quite young so I was raised, along with four other siblings, by my mother, and she was very much an advocate for education.  In fact she used to say that education is your passport out of poverty.  I suppose I didn’t really take it that seriously when I was younger, but in hindsight, looking back, I can certainly see what she meant. [1:01] Growing up in a – essentially a Jamaican household, music is very much an integral part.  And so from a very early age I was appreciative of – of music.  And especially with my friends, we set up sound systems when we were younger, and that progressed onto DJing and eventually remixing, and back in 2004 we set up a – a remix company called Xtremix.  And so I’ve always had an interest, which I suppose has grown from a hobby and is still a hobby but also now – as you get older you have to justify it a little bit professionally as well. [1:25]  I suppose I had, I would say, a fairly lazy attitude towards school when I was younger, but there was one key, I suppose, turning point, which was in a chemistry class, which – I’ve always had a passing interest in things like chemistry.  But I – they did a test and I ended up getting top marks.  And it was a surprise to me.  It was a surprise to the teachers, but also a surprise to the students.  But what was really surprising was that the boffins, the ones who usually get top marks, they were really surprised, almost a little bit disappointed.  I’d say disgusted, to be honest.  And one of them even actually asked the teacher to check whether he had marked my particular work correctly.  But at that point it made me think, well, why not?  Even though I wasn’t aiming for top marks, why can’t someone like me get top marks?  And that’s sort of stayed with me throughout my career because there are times when you’re going to have to battle with the boffins and – and that’s something that I think has helped to propel me, partly, to what I do today. [2:26] I did my PhD here at Imperial in atmospheric physics and I was the only black student in the cohort, which didn’t really concern me.  I had been to some extent used to being in environments where you might be the only one.  But I suppose what really did – which you sort of subconsciously also believe, is that you’re the first one.  And when you think you’re the first one, then it means that you feel that you’re pioneering.  So anything that happens to you, you’re never quite sure whether that’s happening to you because that’s just what happens or in fact whether that’s happening to you because it’s you.  And so I think in reality, when you realise that there were others who have gone before you, it would have been good to benefit from some of their experience.  So I think it would have made certain aspects more – more enjoyable. [3:14] I was fortunate enough to spend some time in industry, both before and after the PhD, and I really saw the value of some of the skills that I had acquired when in industry.  One of the things which I remember, I was in an area called – called credit control, where effectively you had to collect cash from – from the businesses that owed money to this particular software company.  And just by having a methodical systematic approach and trying to solve it a bit like a scientist would, we were able to make a real impact on both their working capital and their bottom line profit.  So that’s just a small example of how sort of training in something very specific like a PhD can give you generic skills that can be applied elsewhere.  That said, those experiences in industry have also helped in my research, especially in the commercialisation of – of the research.  So as a co-founder of Duvas Technologies, I’ve found that much of my commercial experience really put me in a strong position to see the true value of what we had developed. [4:04] So Duvas Technologies, they’re a company that specialises in wireless air sensing, which basically means that we’ve developed a high throughput unit that can measure things in the air that you wouldn’t necessarily be able to see or detect by breathing, but nevertheless can be harmful.  So you can imagine that equipment like that has applications in both air pollution and air quality monitoring but also in other areas, like civil defence and the military, for example, and also things like industrial plants and biothreats.  So what we really did was develop a technology platform that was applicable to many different sectors. [4:43] When I was doing my A levels, it wasn’t hugely well sort of recognised within the community because at the time they weren’t quite sure of the motives in that sense.  My local friends, they called me Chemist because I was presumably good at chemistry, but they didn’t really understand why I was going down this – this studying route.  But eventually, when I went to university and beyond, many would try and find reasons as to why I was the one who actually succeeded in that sense academically.  And I’d always try to convince them that anybody can do it.  And I think that’s my message today, that regardless of your background or – or what your upbringing is, if you have the aptitude and the attitude, then I say you should definitely go for it.  In terms of my own experiences within the Caribbean community, I suppose that over the years I’ve managed to exercise what I would call a bicultural competence, and that is that you’ve got to be competent in the area that you’re interested in but you’ve also got to still keep the connections with your community because that’s important.  As someone famous once said, a man without knowledge of himself is like a tree without roots.  So you don’t necessarily want to lose your roots.  And I’m – I’ve always been mindful of ensuring that that’s still the case.

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