President's Address 2022

President's Address 2022

 

The annual President’s Address celebrates the staff, students and alumni who have received external recognition for their work.  

This year we are recognising the external achievements of over 120 members of the Imperial community. These achievements include featuring in the 2022 New Year’s Honours and the 2021 Queen’s Birthday Honours lists, being elected Fellows of academic societies, receiving Fellowships from several high-profile bodies and winning a range of awards and grants.

View our full list of awardees in the slideshow.

Acting Courageously 

Introduction

Good afternoon. It is a special joy to gather in person  to recognise members of our community who have received external accolades for their contributions to society. There are more inspiring achievements than ever as we celebrate 76 members of staff, 13 students and 39 alumni. These accolades range from British Empire Medals, winning University Challenge, elections as academic society fellows, fellowship awards and numerous prizes and medals.  

Eight members of staff and over 20 alumni were honoured in the Queen’s Birthday and New Year’s Honours lists:

  • Professors Robin Grimes and Anthony Finkelstein were knighted
  • Professors Paul Elliott, Peter Openshaw and Wendy Barclay were awarded CBEs
  • Professor Alison Holmes was awarded an OBE
  • Professors Carlo Contaldi, Azra Ghani and Dr Justin Roe and were awarded MBEs

And, of course, we are very proud of the College’s Queen’s Anniversary Prize for our response to the COVID-19. 

Congratulations to you all.

 

It is, perhaps, natural to get a bit nostalgic on such an occasion as my eighth and last Address as Imperial’s President.  The immensity of what we have been through and what we have accomplished adds to that feeling. 

I was surprised this past winter to hear from a classmate from the University of Southern California.  A beloved Dean of Women, Dean Joan, had passed away and left in her wishes that her files be sent to the students she had cared for.  I found my hand-written letters to her from my travels in Europe, grad school at Princeton, my early years at Stanford and my move to MIT. A treasure trove of memories, thoughts and feelings long since forgotten. A tribute to all that she meant to me and to other students.

Also in the file, was my speech as USC’s 1980 valedictorian. It was my first public speech.  I had lost the speech and was gobsmacked to read it again.  Even after these 42 years, it is strangely pertinent today.

In looking back on what I said, I see my reverence for higher education; a belief that propelled me throughout my career to this amazing place. 

Let’s look back for a moment to 1980 in the UK. There were steel strikes, strong disapproval of government, the SAS stormed the Iranian embassy to free hostages (an event filmed from an enterprising Imperial student’s room in Weeks Hall); inflation was 21.8% and the first episode of “Yes Minister” was aired.  

Here’s some of what my 22 year old self said in California at that time:

“In these last four years we were also faced with discouraging realities about the world. We picked up the morning paper to read about plane crashes, riots, Jonestown, the Hillside Strangler, international terrorism and natural disasters.

Thus, we look ahead with guarded dreams and subconscious fears. We hope for Rose Bowl Sundays, good times, a stable job, a house and a pet dog. Yet we fear the possibility of war, economic crises, cold winters, hot summers, and fuel shortages.

How will we, the class of 1980, individually and collectively, cope with these problems outside the sanctity of the University of Southern California?”

These amazing parallels, fearing war, economic crises, cold winters, hot summers and fuel shortages, cause me to ask ourselves how we will cope with our problems today? 

I believed then and more strongly now in the power of education to instil confidence and to give students the confidence to be courageous in facing the difficulties of today and tomorrow. 

We need to act courageously, and we have shown ourselves that we can.

It was natural to insert “Acting Courageously” into our College Strategy. When we put this section in, little did we know how much courage would be needed. 

There is no better example of acting courageously than through our “coping” with the unforeseen toll of a virus that maybe was not on our list of fears and worries in 2019.

 

Individual and collective courage: The Pandemic

Reflecting on the first nine months of the pandemic, in my Autumn Message in 2020 I wrote about my experience riding the Ultimate roller coaster with my grown son.  I was not particularly courageous to get on what looked like a long beautiful wooden roller coaster across the placid Yorkshire countryside.  When the second lift hill catapulted us into a chaotic metal coaster with incredible forces, I was shocked, surprised and, I guess, I mustered the courage to persist.  This is what the pandemic felt like; being courageous when all is tumultuous around you.

Our community was very courageous, adaptable, pragmatic, effective and bold.  We prevailed.

There are far too many people to recognise individually for their courage through the pandemic.  From volunteers, nurses, epidemiologists, instructors, doctors, researchers, students, security officers, PCR testers, lab technicians, to research administrators, public affairs managers, registry and admissions team – literally everyone.  We made devices, face shields, hand sanitizer….A few groups stand out in my mind:

  • Our team from the Jameel Institute and MRC Centre stuck their necks out and told us and the world what the pandemic might become.
  • Our vaccinologists and virologists saw a crisis, put their scientific studies into action creating novel vaccines, understanding animal transmission and powering through the ups and downs of scientific work in a crisis.
  • Our clinical scientists and infectious disease experts pursued crucial human challenge studies
  • Our experts clearly explained findings from clinical studies to the public.
  • Our team took the lead on the pivotal REACT study showing the world how the virus worked.
  • Our staff and students forged new ways of teaching and learning. We’ve created new ways of assessing, pushing teamwork and more. We’ve changed teaching spaces.
  • Our staff in residence halls cared for students in sickness and health; campus services fed everyone; security kept us safe; our computer technology group and countless others helped us learn to work effectively from a distance.

We celebrated our first Queen’s Anniversary Prize since 2007; I am sure that there will be many more such accolades recognising our courage and its benefit to society.

We each acted in our own way individually and collectively, with courage, to make a difference to ourselves and others. 

This takes me back to my 1980 speech where I addressed the need to have the courage to care:

“Individually, we will not have pat answers. Many times we will try to slip into our narcissistic shelters and try not to care. However, in college we began facing realities and reaching turning points. We fostered individual opinions, stood up for them, and gained confidence in ourselves. I hope that these turning points, if nothing else, gave us the courage to care. I hope that we have gained the guts to crawl out of our suburban incubators and to give a damn about the world, its people, and its problems.

Caring as individuals is the first step, and working together is the key. Our individual concern, manifest in individual and joint efforts, is the lever needed to reach our goals."

We at Imperial do have the courage to care. Universities are called upon to care. We will need to stay courageous and be steadfast in caring for our community and for those around us and for people around the world.

 

Courage to Care: Opening to our Community

It’s intentional that our mission: “to achieve enduring excellence in research and education in science, engineering, medicine and business for the benefit of society,” points to societal benefit. 

As I said decades ago, caring is the first step and working together is the key.

These past few years Imperial has embraced outreach at new levels. We have built upon and amplified the fantastic work by the team at the Wohl Reach out lab where thousands of students have been inspired and motivated to pursue university education in sciences. 

As we moved into a new neighbourhood with our White City Campus, we opened our arms and our doors to new friends with new opportunities like the Invention Rooms. 

Implementing that vision with a proverbial “lick of paint” was gratifying and we are so thankful for the confidence and support of generous donors like Marit Mohn, David Dangoor, and others. Seeing the Maker Challenges; What the Tech; Women’s leadership programme and great community team on the ground, epitomises the courage to care. The School of Public Health in White City will enhance our impact on the community and the world.

That courage to care will need to persist as we venture into new territory for Imperial starting a Maths School aiming to bring more underrepresented children and girls into Imperial and universities like ours.  This is a critical national need and should get the support of our community and others.

We also care deeply about our own community. We responded to the hurt and anger brought out by the George Floyd murder, working with our wonderful Imperial As One group to develop new ways to bring people together to support one another and celebrate belonging. We created new scholarships to attract more underrepresented students. We removed the College’s Latin motto and commissioned a group to examine the College's history and legacy. 

We have come together as a community to find ways to make all feel welcome. This is only a beginning and we have more to do to understand one another, and to build bonds where there are rifts today.  We must continue to muster the courage to care.

 

Confidence to have Courage: Discovery and Innovation

There are fundamental discoveries and ingenious inventions that change the world.  Sir Alexander Fleming’s insight from petri dishes left over a holiday comes to mind. 

Such “aha” moments occur in our laboratories, workshops and theatres throughout the year.  It takes confidence to pursue a hunch, and courage to take a contrarian view. We should applaud the courage our colleagues and students show when they discover something.

Michele Dougherty saw a small signal only an expert could appreciate. She knew there was something to be seen on the small icy moon Enceladus. To investigate her insight would mean changing the course of the Cassini mission. It would not be an easy sell.  She saw an opportunity as the person who would make such a decision was in line for coffee at JPL.  The right person at the right time.  She had the confidence to make a case for the quest, made it convincingly and the rest is history.  The discovery of water and gases coming from Enceladus has been credited with “changing the direction of planetary science”.  Confidence to have courage.

I think that there is no better example of my youthful idea that universities should instil confidence to their students so that they can be courageous than the WEInnovate story.

In 2014 one of my first visitors as the new President of Imperial was Alexsis de Raadt St James; she had a vision and an action plan and a donation. She had worked with Maggie Dallman and team to make history.

At that time we had virtually no women in our entrepreneurship competitions, none. Overnight ,when offered their own competition some 80 groups came forward! I am proud that WEInnovate has supported over 400 women with mentoring, coaching, pitch practice, and a network of entrepreneurs lasting far into the future.  Now WEInnovate women readily win other competitions in Imperial and across the UK. 

They have started companies, created jobs, and developed solutions to tough problems in health, agri-tech, environment, tech and social care.

Instilling confidence so that entrepreneurs can be courageous is an area where Imperial can really excel.  Entrepreneurs need funding, space, and mentoring. We have new ways of supporting staff and student inventors and are continually seeking new funding sources. Our venture mentoring service brings experienced volunteers together with early-stage startup founders. We have incubators, and now Scale Space to provide the space and community to start and grow your business.

There is much more to do, and I think that Imperial, as a community, is gaining the courage to be bold in new models of an entrepreneurial campus having co-location with businesses and other institutions and place making that contributes to the success of such ventures. 

We can and we must continue to build these bold new ways to fuel innovation.

 

Courage to be boldly international

Imperial is the most international and perhaps the most collaborative university in the UK.  We need courage to continue to be so in a period of deglobalisation.

On the morning of the 24th of June 2016, like many people, I woke up around 4:30 AM. It was bright and sunny. I opened BBC on my IPad to check on the results of the referendum and couldn’t go back to sleep.  Our communications team was ready with both potential messages; I said, send it now, none of us can sleep. 

We said:

Imperial is, and will remain, a European university, whatever your view of the referendum outcome….

We went on to say:

We will vigorously defend our international values if they are threatened and will continue to think and act internationally. 

We have advocated for our international community. For visas and supportive immigration policies and to combat the rhetoric that sometimes prevails in our media. 

I am proud of the international connections and partnerships we have built.

We have forged new partnerships and supported seed funds with MIT, Technical University Munich, and throughout the EU.  Our mathematicians took the lead to create an historic collaboration with the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique, CNRS.

Since the referendum, we have been outspoken advocates for international collaboration. We welcomed the commitment to Horizon Europe as part of the Brexit deal and we have worked tirelessly since then to get the UK and EU to an agreement against the backdrop of political negotiations.

The government today published its thinking on alternatives to Horizon should the UK not be able to associate. While contingency measures and guaranteed investment are of course necessary and welcome we remain clear that access to the full programme is critical for Imperial.

International collaboration is essential to the success of UK science, and we must continue to work with the UK and Europe to make this possible.  

We are expanding our work in Africa and India.

Several years ago, our International Relations team convened our many colleagues working in Africa and they developed a strategy and actions that further our global partnerships.  It is exciting to see our growing collaboration with the African Institute of Mathematics Sciences (AIMS) to help develop future science leaders there.  

This week, we launched our first African Strategic Partners seed fund with AIMS and the African Research University Alliance (ARUA) for new education and research collaborations.

It’s gratifying to watch our “Connecting Ghana” programme built upon WEInnovate, in collaboration with University of Ghana making a difference there. They have plenty of talented women entrepreneurs who are benefitting from the mentoring, coaching and support.

Just today we announced a new partnership with India’s top research institute, the Indian Institute of Science to support early-stage, risky and ‘blue skies’ research and education collaborations.  This comes at a critical time when more students from India are choosing to study in Canada than any place in the world.  Our connections and visibility in India will add to the advocacy of our successful Indian alumni and perhaps turn this tide.

These institutional efforts add to the thousands of smaller collaborations throughout the college.  Imperial is truly an important asset to the world.  There are many challenges to work on and many collaborations to build.

We will need to advocate for policies that retain our freedom to collaborate and work with individuals from all over the world.  We cannot blame individual students or academics for their leaders’ behaviours any more than any of us would want to bear responsibility for the actions of some in our own countries.

Tensions around the world are mounting.  Countries are creating new alliances and new divisions are emerging. It is more important than ever to bridge those gaps and I know that Imperial can continue to lead in this if we retain the courage to defend those values.

In a world where nationalism is overtaking globalism, we must still vigorously defend our international values and think and act internationally. 

 

Telling the world about ourselves

We have also stepped out of our shells to shed our modesty and let the world know more about Imperial.

Brave colleagues have represented Imperial at eight IDEAS Labs for the World Economic Forum at Davos and Dalian.  Peta Kucha presentations are talks with slides changing automatically and rapidly.  They take tremendous courage and skill and through them, with the help of our Enterprise staff, our teams have shared their latest discoveries and insights with diverse audiences of business and government leaders, and philanthropists.

They’ve described synthetic biology, advanced materials, data rich environments, and, auspiciously, in January 2020, viruses and disease X!  These presentations have built new and enduring relationships with new friends.

In our 2015 strategy we committed to building strong relationships with our alumni and we recognised the benefits of lifelong connections amongst them.  Since then, our alumni have stepped up to serve as mentors to students, to help with student recruitment, to advise our entrepreneurs and to support and convene local alumni associations. We are proud of this work by our Alumni Relations team. Our outstanding Heads of Department and Deans now send informative and interesting newsletters.

Our newly formed Advancement team has helped us cultivate wonderful philanthropists.  Old friends and new friends have confidence in us, they make courageous gifts, and they catalyse and amplify our impact. 

Their support, moving from an average of £14M per year (2006-14) to around £50M per year since 2016, is critical to our mission.  Our Deans, HoDs and Academics are gaining confidence in these relationships and helping drive this success. 

Partners who believe in us give us the courage to innovate.

After the 1851 Great Exhibition, Prince Albert saw the need to extend the influence of science and art upon productive industry. Our neighbourhood reflects this, and we have grown and improved our collaboration with the great museums and institutions next door.  One exciting manifestation of Prince Albert’s dream is in the Great Exhibition Road Festival, courageously built out of Imperial’s festival, bravely closing Exhibition Road for the weekend and attracting tens of thousands of people. Kudos to our energetic team and our partners in the Exhibition Road Cultural Group. 

Keep working together, cultivate new friends and alumni, they believe in our mission and want to help, shout about Imperial’s greatness and close the road for more community events!

 

Courageous Actions

This has been a lot for a university to take on.  We are called to do more, and I know that we can and will.

The future is bright, as Imperial continues to act courageously. 

  • We will build our new maths school;
  • We will create a new medical school in partnership with the University of Cumbria;
  • We will build relationships across the College, give all a sense of belonging and understanding one another;
  • We will vigorously advocate for openness to international students, staff and collaborations; and,
  • We will expand our innovation ecosystem at White City.

 

Camouflaged moments

Going back to my 1980 speech:

“As the historian William E. Woodward wrote in 1926, The turning points of our lives are not the great moments. The real crises are often concealed in occurrences so trivial in appearance that they pass unnoticed.

These commencement exercises are not a turning point; the turning points in our growth occurred in a diversity of camouflaged events over the last four years. There were particular times here when each of us was touched individually, in personal ways that perhaps no one else felt.

These events are the lasting legacy which the university experience provided for us regardless of our major or our degrees.”

I feel the same way about my time at Imperial – the “camouflaged moments” are perhaps the most enduring.

One such event took place the other day when a receptionist in one of our buildings stopped me to say thanks and to ask me to take a selfie with her. It touched me greatly and gave me a sense of the pride we share in working together at such a great institution. 

I will always care about Imperial and advocate for Imperial and for higher education.

I will try to remain courageous in that advocacy and I know that you will too.

 

Staying strong and courageous

The future will require courage and fortitude

There is as much uncertainty as ever, even more than in 1980 as we once again fear war, economic disruption; an energy transition punctuated by crises; and societal discord.

Personally, many messages of support, inspiring stories of courage, and wishing me to “stay strong” helped me.

I return that message to all of you – there will be bumps in the road, shoals to navigate and ups and downs – stay strong and be courageous.

 

Professor Alice P. Gast

President, Imperial College London