Saiful Islam: life as a scientist

Saiful Islam talks about his education, his research in the energy materials area, his atheism, racism in the 1970s, and what makes a scientist.


I’m Saiful Islam.  I’m a professor in computational materials chemistry at the University of Bath.  I was born in Karachi, Pakistan, and came to the UK in 1964, when my dad was posted here to the High Commission, and grew up in North London, Crouch End. [0:24] I went to school to a boys’ comprehensive called Stationers.  I liked chemistry and went on to study chemistry at degree level at University College London, and then after that stayed on to do a PhD looking at structures and properties of crystalline materials but using computer modelling techniques. [0:47] Appearances can be misleading both in my research and in my name.  In terms of my research, I’m a chemist that doesn’t wear a white lab coat.  I do computer modelling using very powerful supercomputers to look at complex materials.  In terms of my name, Saiful Islam, the surname obviously suggests a particular religion.  Even though I grew up in a – a Muslim household, I eventually – whether I had any faith I don’t know, but I became more atheist, non religious.  And I think it really mirrored my fascination with science and the rational and scientific method, and possibly because my dad wasn’t strongly religious so he never pushed it upon me.  And I always feel that – that children should have that space to explore faiths themselves or no faiths at all. [1:51]  I feel very – in a way very fortunate I’m a professor at a major university, and I have to say, through my academic career I’ve never felt any prejudice in terms of my race within the university environment and through the academic environment.  It’s always been very collaborative and supportive, as it should be.  In contrast, there was a period in the late ‘70s, around the infamous Enoch Powell speech of rivers of blood when I was a teenager, where it wasn’t easy being a young Asian teenager in – in London.  There were instances of Paki bashing and I – I got beaten up by skinheads a couple of times as well, and once particularly – with my younger sister, which, you know, stays with me today, that, you know, such vile bigotry is still out there, thankfully a minority but worryingly there is a bit of a rise of neo fascism in parts of Europe right now, but I think in Britain and in – and in the academic environment that’s not visible. [3:11] I think it’s well established that one of the biggest challenges of this century is the energy challenge, developing cleaner sustainable energy.  And I’m fortunate that I work in the energy materials area.  We’re looking at new compounds that can be used in either fuel cells or lithium ion batteries.  And fuel cells can be used in cars or homes to cut CO2 emissions and lithium ion batteries can be used in electric vehicles or hybrid electric vehicles, again to try and cut CO2 emissions.  My research looks at new crystalline materials that can be used in both, and we try and understand more about their structural and conduction properties within these novel materials, using very advanced computer modelling techniques. [4:06] An important property within some of these materials is that the ions can move very fast through the crystal lattice.  That’s called ion conduction.  But that’s very difficult to probe by experiment alone, so using computer modelling we can try and map out, almost like a virtual microscope, map out how those ions move within that crystalline lattice, and understanding those properties are very important, understanding the function of a battery or a fuel cell. [4:38] Because of the energy research that I’ve just described, I think it’s a really exciting time to be a scientist in general and a chemist in particular, because we need chemistry to develop new green technologies.  Another aspect of science which is great is that it’s really open to – to everyone.  If you’re really interested and passionate about science you can get really involved.  And, you know, I’d – I’d say that that sense of wonder and beauty about the natural world is fulfilled by studying science.

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