Imperial College London

FoNS at the Frontiers

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Faculty of Natural Sciences Showcase 2022 poster including photos of two of the speakers and a little more info about the event

Preparations are in full swing for this year’s Research Showcase in the Faculty of Natural Sciences.

Our annual Faculty Showcase is back in person for 2022. Departmental sessions over the course of the day will give FoNS students and staff a great opportunity to communicate their work – and give Imperial staff and students an opportunity to learn more about our research across natural sciences.

This year we’ll also be hosting a ‘Frontiers of Research’ panel discussion, featuring an academic from each of our five departments who will present a short overview of where they think the next breakthroughs will come in their respective research areas, followed by an informal Q&A.

We caught up with Professor Paul French, our Vice Dean for Research (VDR) and member of the Photonics research group, to find out why the Faculty chose the ‘Frontiers’ theme and what he hopes staff and students will take away from the Showcase. He also shares insight into his aims as VDR, and more broadly, his thoughts on the fundamental nature of the natural sciences.

Hi Paul – why the ‘Frontiers of Research’ panel theme?

Much FoNS’ research concerns basic discovery – rather than directly addressing shorter term translation or application – and we wanted to share the excitement of going beyond the frontiers of current knowledge. The pace of technology development today is unprecedented, and this is creating new opportunities for fundamental as well as applied research, driving a sense that more excitement is round the corner – ultimately leading to new technologies and capabilities that may help us deal with some of the pressing global challenges. This panel discussion aims to capture some of this excitement.

Why is it important for Faculty to get together in this way?

It can be particularly valuable for researchers to be exposed to work outside their own specific fields – science can be most exciting when you are surprised or learn something you were not expecting. Professor Paul French FoNS Vice Dean (Research)

In today’s rather specialised research environments, scientists are often not aware of advances in each other’s fields and so we think this discussion will be interesting to students and staff across FoNS disciplines as well as to those outside the natural sciences. Even within a discipline like physics, we have a limited appreciation of the advances being made by our colleagues – and much less idea of what's at the frontiers in mathematics, chemistry, life sciences or environmental policy. This cross-disciplinary dialogue is important from a research perspective – nature doesn’t fit neatly into subject areas: molecules and planets, atoms and animals, cannot be understood only within the context of the disciplines being studied in specific departments. There's now an increasing trend towards less structured, multi-disciplinarity in research and it is increasingly difficult for almost any scientific endeavour to be addressed by just one person or lab. To make significant progress at the frontiers of knowledge increasingly requires teams with a complementary range of skills and expertise.

On the other hand, there are good reasons to organise our study and training in departments and to concentrate expertise in particular areas. Physics is different from life sciences, which is different from chemistry, etc., and it takes many years to be able to “stand on the shoulders of giants”. Generalists may not push the state of the art in any one field, and we often need to integrate the highest levels of research expertise in teams of specialists working together, rather than hoping to train individuals to the highest levels in multiple disciplines. To work effectively together, we need to communicate across different fields and bridge between our core disciplines. This can be done through multidisciplinary training, as exemplified in many of our Centres for Doctoral Training, and through exchange of ideas and progress, as we are trying to encourage via this FoNS Research Showcase.

It can be particularly valuable for researchers to be exposed to work outside their own specific fields – science can be most exciting when you are surprised or learn something you were not expecting. Research often moves forward through luck and serendipity, and an informal chat over a drink can lead to a new multidisciplinary research project – and even to a shift in direction or career path.

Why should staff and students come to the Showcase and what do you hope people take away from it?

The Faculty of Natural Sciences is a community within which many diverse contributions are necessary to advance our research goals. As we work together in our respective roles, I think it is helpful to understand what our colleagues are doing and how our efforts come together to deliver our science, and what may be the outcomes of our collective work.

As well as our researchers and students, we hope that our professional support colleagues will also come along to hear about what’s exciting researchers across our departments, and where they think the future breakthroughs will happen. The Showcase is intended to be widely accessible, and the informal panel discussion is an opportunity to bring the Faculty together, no matter what your department, role or career stage. This event is also an opportunity for us to look outward, and share our research with funders, donors and industry.

All the Showcase presenters are chosen on the basis of being effective communicators. Indeed, our student speakers have been selected through poster and presentation competitions within their home departments and are competing for significant prizes at the FoNS Research Showcase. I’d recommend attending the whole day if you can, especially if you want to see the range of our science, but if you only have time to come to the panel discussion, then this aims to condense the zeitgeist across FoNS within an hour – and hopefully highlight some of the cutting edges of research today!

With the College being formally structured around faculties, departments, and central teams, does this opportunity therefore aim to bring people together and help overcome sometimes arbitrary divisions?

Exactly – as well as highlighting our research in natural sciences, the Showcase is also an important community event.  Hopefully part of what you can get from the Q&A and panel discussion elements is a more humanised picture of the excitement in science. Rather than just reading about it online, you can hear different personal perspectives from colleagues in our departments.

I really hope colleagues from all our job families and our student cohorts will join us because I think it is important to develop our community and support interactions between our research, teaching and administration staff and our students. The College moves forward according to how we deliver our science and its applications, and we are all in this together. I'm particularly interested to see how this “frontiers” panel discussion goes because we haven't done this before. If the experiment goes well, we may have something like this every year, perhaps exploring different frontiers.

What are your thoughts on the importance of foundational, fundamental research in relation to research that is closer to application or translation in the “real-world”?

The natural sciences core disciplines are inherently about discovery. For many people, that's what sparked their enthusiasm for science, and often informed their career decisions. Professor Paul French FoNS Vice Dean (Research)

The natural sciences core disciplines are inherently about discovery. For many people, that's what sparked their enthusiasm for science, and often informed their career decisions. Mathematics, physics, chemistry and biology are the subjects that most of us learned at school and our departments often attract people who want to keep asking – and trying to answer – fundamental questions.

Of course, FoNS doesn't have exclusive ownership of discovery– indeed, the engineering and medical sciences are increasingly concerned with accelerating discovery – but fundamentally, discovery is at the heart of our core disciplines. Although these disciplines are quite different in tradition and practice, they share challenges, drivers and opportunities that differ from those of our colleagues in Engineering, Medicine and the Business School, whose work is typically more immediately problem- or impact-driven.

Having said that, our core disciplines are themselves becoming more multidisciplinary, heavily exploiting advances in computation and more recently in artificial intelligence and robotics. FoNS staff are increasingly interested in the subsequent development of discoveries and their applications. The Centre for Environmental Policy, Grantham Institute and our Silwood-based colleagues, for example, are specifically concerned with the pressing challenges associated with climate change and many colleagues from our core departments are contributing to these efforts. Ultimately, however, all technology translation and impacts in science, technology engineering and medicine can be traced back to basic discoveries - and the core disciplines are at the heart of the College’s academic strategy. Our panel discussion is about getting people to horizon scan and think about where the next breakthrough discoveries are going to come.

What have you been aiming to achieve in your time as FoNS Vice Dean for Research?

When I started, I had three overarching aims: to encourage collaboration and multidisciplinary science, to diversify our research funding and to better understand and address barriers hindering our research. These obviously align closely with what the College, the Deans and Heads of Departments are seeking to achieve, and much of the Vice Dean for Research role entails working within central College processes while engaging with departments and the Faculty Research Strategy team.

My time in this role has been heavily impacted by changes in external drivers, such as Brexit, COVID-19 and the war in Ukraine. These national and global issues have strongly affected the wellbeing and work of staff and students at Imperial and across the university sector in general, and it has been inspiring to see how well the Imperial community has responded to them. Indeed, they have prompted us to question many aspects of how we deliver our mission and, as we move forward, we will develop new ways of working to deal what seem like ever more serious challenges.

The future will likely include more online interactions and more coherent approaches to win strategically directed research funding, for which sustaining a strong research community and ensuring efficient communication will be crucial. I have tried to help put structures and processes in place, including the FoNS Research Showcase, to address these priorities.

Reporter

Claudia Cannon

Claudia Cannon
Faculty of Natural Sciences