Interview with Professor Andrew Livingston who stepped down as Head of the Department of Chemical Engineering at Imperial on 1 October 2016
On 1 October 2016 Professor Andrew Livingston stepped down as Head of the Department of Chemical Engineering and was succeeded by Professor Nilay Shah. Professor Livingston has led the Department for two successive terms since his appointment as Head in 2008. He joined Imperial in 1990 as a Lecturer following a PhD at the University of Cambridge and a 3 year stint in industry. Professor Livingston is originally from Taranaki in New Zealand. Other than leading the Department to new heights, his impressive credentials include setting up a hugely successful Imperial membrane manufacturing company, leading an extensive research group, working closely with industry and publishing countless papers in the field. He has received a number of medals and awards over the years and was elected a Fellow of the Royal Academy of Engineering in 2006. As he hands over the reins we asked him to reflect on his 8 years leading the Department.
1. What inspired you to study Chemical Engineering?
Ever since I was little I've really liked engineering. As a kid, I remember I would take my father's old tobacco tins and put a hole in them with a screw and then light a fire underneath them and it would start making steam. Then I would undo the screw and it started to release the steam. Eventually if the pressure got too high it would blow the top off the tobacco tin. So I have always had this fascination with thermodynamics and steam and how steam could drive things. When I got to school I found that I also really enjoyed Chemistry. Actually I didn't know what Chemical Engineering was until almost the day I started my degree, but I think the combination of Engineering – making things – and the science behind Chemistry was appealing for me. I am the first person to study Chemical Engineering in my family!
2. What was your favourite subject in Chemical Engineering?
The parts of Chemical Engineering that I enjoyed the most were when we got to connect physical phenomena and Mathematics. So you could take mathematical models about what's going on physically and then use them to solve a problem like designing some piece of equipment or plant or something like that. Design has always been one of my favourite parts of Chemical Engineering.
3. What would you have been if you weren’t an academic?
I would probably still have studied Chemical Engineering. When I started out in Chemical Engineering I didn't consider being an academic, that was never my career goal. In fact, when I finished my first degree I didn't think of doing a PhD: I went and got a job and I worked in industry for three years before I decided that I would go and do a PhD because I enjoyed research. I think if I hadn’t been an academic, I would've been a chemical engineer, I would've worked for a company, and perhaps I would've ended up setting up my own company or a consultancy-type business.
It's such a thrill to work with really talented people!
– Professor Andrew Livingston
4. What attracted you to Imperial?
The things that attracted me were its strength, it is well-known to be very strong in chemical engineering, the fact that it's in London and London is a great city. The main factors to me were the quality of the department, the quality of the staff, the quality of the students and the location.
5. What do you think makes this Department different from any other Chemical Engineering departments?
You know I've worked in this department ever since I started my academic career in 1990, I've never actually worked in another department. Some of the distinguishing features about the department are that we are very collegial, we work together on different projects in different ways. I think we are a good size, so that we cover most topics in chemical engineering and I think we just have very-very high quality staff and students. It's such a thrill to work with really talented people! We're very lucky in the UK at being at the top of the tree in chemical engineering because we really do get the best people to work with. The quality of the people, the quality of the ideas, the quality of the students and in particular the way they challenge you, the way they make you think, the quality of the staff, the desire for excellence, the desire to be successful as a department, all of these things are my favourite things about the department.
6. What does being a Head of Department (HoD) involve?
Well... you should ask me this question in a year after I have had time to think about it! I've been HoD for 8 years and when you're in the middle of doing something you don't always pause to think about what it involves, you tend to get involved in lots of different things. But I think it involves two things really. It involves the strategic leadership and the direction of the department: how you're going to make sure that it's heading in the right direction, trying to make sure the vision of what we want to do is shared by others and making sure that everyone has something to gain from that vision and everyone sees it as a positive thing. And then there is the day-to-day operations, making sure that we provide the teaching we undertake to do, that we carry out good quality of research, that we take care of all of the students, undergraduate and postgraduate, that we take care of all the staff and all of the issues around staff. As a HoD I've been surrounded by outstanding administrators and people who've supported me, so I haven't had to worry about the detail of many of those things because the quality of the professional staff is equal to the quality of the academic staff. Which means that this department runs in a highly efficient way. And that makes the job of the HoD much easier and it means you can have some time to focus on high level strategic objectives as a department.
7. How does your average working day look like?
I live outside of London, my commute is about 1 hour 20 minutes each way, and so my working day starts before I get to the office. I usually start working on my laptop on the train. Generally in the mornings I try and tackle tasks that require me to have more intellectual energy and be more creative, so if I had to, for example, work on a research paper or a lecture course or some sort of strategic document or policy for the department, these are the things that I try and do in the morning. I try not to get dragged into email too early in the day. Then you have meetings during the day, and one of the challenges is to keep up with the meetings, usually the meeting ends with agreements to do something or proceed in a certain way and I always try to follow those things up before we get to the next meeting. Towards the end of the day I would make more time for discussions with my students and my research group and I would make more time for answering email and handling administrative tasks. I think it's a matter of how you're trying to channel when you have the most creativity and energy, and use that when you can and then try and get other things you need to get done later in the day.
8. How do you remember your first month as a HoD?
I can't remember my first month as HoD... it was so long ago! But what I do remember is when I was asked to be the HoD. I remember that Stephen Richardson came to my office and said "Would you like to be HoD?" and I said "No!" because I thought I wouldn't like to do it and I had lots of other things I wanted to do, and Stephen said "Go on, think about it!" and so I said "Well, let's have my colleagues say that they prefer me to be the HoD, if I'm the person they would like to be the HoD I will do it, otherwise I don't mind if I do or don't do it." And I also asked my wife and she said "Go on, you should do it!" So Stephen came back to me two days later and said "Well, yes, there has been a survey and your colleagues would like you to do it" and I said "Ok, in that case I will be HoD." In the first month I remember I had to meet with the Rector and he confirmed me as a HoD and then it was just all sorts of transition. It all passed so quickly that I really can't remember any particular details about what happened.
9. What is your happiest memory about being a HoD?
I think the most pleasant job I have or the thing I like the most is when I get to go around telling staff that they've been promoted. They’re always really happy and I’m really happy that we’ve got through the promotions process. So these are probably my happiest moments, when I have the privilege of going and telling staff that “Guess what, you’re a Reader/Professor/Senior Lecturer!” That gave me a buzz eight years ago and still gives me a buzz now.
10. What is the biggest challenge about being the HoD?
You know once they asked Zhou Enlai, who was the first premier of China, what he thought of the French Revolution, and he said "It's too early to tell". He was saying that, even after 200 years it's hard to say what was the most important thing ... I think the biggest challenge about being HoD is developing a vision of where you want the Department to go, sticking to that vision and making sure that you're able to do the best for the Department in a world that's constantly changing. And there's also a challenge in being HoD in the sense that you're given a lot of information from the College where you're told what's going to happen. And you're the middle man, you have to spread that information out among your colleagues and try and get them to agree with that. And sometimes they'll say they don't agree with that, and sometimes you'll agree with your colleagues because you might not agree with it either, but you still have to try and steer the department in the general direction of travel with the College. So I think that's also challenging.
Being creative, seeking and thriving to come up with new ideas and change things for the better, these are what it's all about
– Professor Andrew Livingston
11. What advice would you give to undergrads/PhDs/early career researchers?
My advice is to nurture your curiosity. We're driven by metrics and measurements, this is nowhere more obvious than in the higher and secondary school systems in the UK: students are coming to us and measured on their A-level grades and how many A* they get and when they come to the department what worries me sometimes is that they lose their curiosity. I think curiosity is a very important part of intelligence and being intelligent requires you to remain curious. What I would tell all students whether they're undergrads, PhDs or even early career researchers is that nurturing curiosity and making sure that you remain curious are really important ingredients to being creative. Being creative, seeking and thriving to come up with new ideas and change things for the better are what it's all about. That's how we create new knowledge, how we use that knowledge, how we share that knowledge. I would tell everyone who comes into university whatever they're studying is it's very important that you nurture and retain your curiosity about all the things around you.
12. What are your plans for the future?
On 10 October we're launching a new centre for separation materials called the Barrer Centre. It's actually named Richard Maling Barrer who was formerly the Head of Chemistry here at Imperial. He developed two really big innovations for research. One was he developed the use of zeolites in separations. And the other is that he looked at and studied in detail how gases permeate through polymer materials, particularly rubber materials. In fact, he was so well-known in this area that the unit of gas permeability which is still used today is the Barrer. Perhaps the most interesting personal touch for me about Barrer is that he - like me - came from New Zealand. We followed very similar career paths: he came to England, did his PhD in Cambridge, went to one or two other places and ended up here at Imperial. So we decided to start this new centre and that's going to be a real big challenge for the next year or two, to get that running and to establish it, to get our research programme set up, to try and attract funding to the centre and of course for the centre to establish its name by doing excellent world-leading research. That's the first thing in my diary, I stop being the HoD on 1 October, then the Barrer Centre starts on 10 October and I become the first Inaugural Director of the Barrer Centre. As well as that, I have some ideas around the commercialisation of my research. I have a number of patent portfolios that we have been building up with my research team over the last 4-5 years and I am very interested in exploiting that. I'm in discussions with Imperial Innovations about how that might happen. This is an important area for the department, because going ahead to the next Research Excellence Framework, we are going to need impact case studies. I want to make sure that not only do I contribute my part in terms of the research papers I produce for the REF, but that I also try and contribute something useful to the department in the impact, in the exploitation of the research. These are my plans for the immediate future.
I think the future of the department is very, very bright!
– Professor Andrew Livingston
13. What do you think about the future of the Department?
The only way is up! I think the department is in a really good place, the quality of the students that we have is going up and up, so that's fantastic. The undergrad students are amazing, but also the level of the PhD students: we've doubled the number of PhD applicants that we get over the last 6-7 years and the quality of those PhD students has gone up. In a university I think it's all about the quality of the students. The students are very strong and that's great for the department. We've also hired some amazing new staff in the last few years, we've literally searched the world and we've hired from all over the place. Every time we've done it, we've literally chosen the very best person we could find and they are all amazing. So if you put together the quality of the students and the quality of the staff I think the future of the department is very-very bright.
14. What are you doing in your free time?
My favourite hobby is windsurfing! I don't get much time to do that around the UK, because I have two kids, my kids are 12 years old and 8 years old, so when we're in the UK I spend all my weekends running around and taking my kids to sports and so on, instead of doing sports myself. But when I get free time and I'm on holiday, what I like to do is to get my windsurf and go out. In the bits of free time that I get when I'm here in the UK, I like to go jogging. I also like to do a little bit of gardening and I particularly like growing fruit. I have apple trees, plum trees and pear trees, which I like pruning. It's a long game, you only get to prune a tree once each year and then you have to wait and see next spring how it comes back and whether you get a good crop of apples or plums or whatever it might be. I also like to read, I tend to read mostly non-fiction books. The last couple of books that I've read, one is called Sapiens, it's an absolutely fascinating look at the evolution of humans right through to the present day. The book before that I read was called Rise of the Robots, which is how artificial intelligence is coupled to robotics. So I am interested in non-fiction books really, such as the study of history or the future.
Working with students is a privilege ... they are open to flexible thinking and I like being challenged by them, I like discussing things with them. It's really great fun actually!
– Professor Andrew Livingston
15. Have you participated in teaching?
When you become HoD you have many more meetings to attend and you have a lot of administration to take care of, but as I said I've been supported by amazing professional staff and the academics are very independent as well. But I've continued teaching the whole time and I enjoy teaching, I like contact with the undergraduate students. In fact, even this year when I'm going on a sabbatical I will retain my personal tutees because I like meeting my personal tutees, finding out what's going on in the world, they tend to be more connected then I am. Working with students actually is a privilege. People who are at the age of around 20 are full of energy, their minds aren't made up on a lots of topics, they are open to flexible thinking and I like being challenged by them, I like discussing things with them. It's really great fun actually, it's a privilege to feel the energy from students. So yes, I've kept teaching throughout my time as HoD. And I enjoy it!
"What I'd like to say to all of the staff and students in the department is that it's been a privilege to be the Head of the Department of Chemical Engineering for the last 8 years. Thank you for all the great support I’ve had from everyone and I look forward to the future!" - AGL
"My favourite possessions ... this is a cup that was given to me by students that says 'less hooey, more dooey'. Hooey or "hui" is a New Zealand term that comes from the Maori for a social gathering or assembly (hooey also means bukum or rubbish talk!), dooey means getting things done ... the other is my student academic choice cup, someone put me forward for my lecturing, this was only two years ago!"
[Interview conducted by Dora Olah an Undergraduate student in the Department of Chemical Engineering.]
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