My review of 2010

2010 started for me in the KPA, the postgraduate bar on Keele campus, in the company of colleagues (one of whom refers to this event here, although I must emphasise that there was no staggering back afterwards involved!)

On 1st January 2010 I wrote my first blog post, and having just completed a year of blogging, I am stepping up a gear with the aim of posting weekly. We’ll see how well I manage with this!

January was mainly occupied with marking exams and assignments. Our students at Keele have exams in January and in the spring, and most of my teaching is in the Autumn semester, so I have plenty of marking to do at the start of the year.

My teaching in the early part of the Spring semester included my lectures on quantum mechanics and statistical thermodynamics. The challenge, as ever, was to present the information in a clear, interesting but not too mathematical way (or I lose those students who don’t like maths!). At the same time I was busy organising a conference on Solid State Chemistry to be held in April, and arranging a visit to my research collaborator in Brazil, also scheduled for early April.

My 10 days or so in Brazil were as busy as ever. My collaborator is based in Aracaju, in the North East of the country, and after many trips I have found the best way to get there is with Portuguese airlines (TAP) from London to Lisbon, and then from Lisbon to Salvador. Aracaju is a 40 minute flight from Salvador, using the Brazilian airline TAM. While at Aracaju I worked mainly on papers describing our work on modelling optical materials, which I have mentioned in previous posts.

A few days after I returned, it was time to travel to Oxford for the Solid State Chemistry conference that I organised, which was entitled ‘Experiments and modelling in the science of polar materials’. It was a success scientifically, but made a loss because the attendance was less than I hoped. This was probably because of timing; too many rival events and some universities being already back in term time. Because of the poor attendance, I won’t be organising a similar conference in 2011, but in 2012 it may be possible to organise something jointly with another group, to maximise appeal and potential attendance.

Back at Keele I gave about 12 lectures, with accompanying labs and problem classes, on introductory physical chemistry, to a class of students with chemistry backgrounds who intend to take a PGCE course, but who require some ‘knowledge enhancement’. This seemed to go reasonably well, but it has turned out to be the last course of lectures I will teach without using powerpoint! Over the last few years I have converted all my courses except this one to powerpoint, and while the class size was small, using ‘ ‘chalk’ and talk’ worked well. But next year’s class will get a combination of powerpoint and worked examples on the board, which is the compromise I have settled on nowadays for all my teaching.

In May there was, of course, the General Election. I posted frequently in the build up to it, and in its aftermath, and there is little to add here. As a Labour Party member I have watched the events of the last few months unfold with despair, tinged with a certain sense of inevitability. I will leave further discussion of this topic to later posts.

Meanwhile at Keele, the summer exams period was soon on us, and as examinations officer for Chemistry at Keele, I was very busy then. Apart from marking my own exams, there was the administration of everyone else’s marking (and second marking), and organising and chairing the examination board meetings. I’m glad to say that it all went well, and our students mostly got good results. I also visited the University of Surrey as external examiner for physical and computational chemistry, which is interesting as well as being an important job. Seeing how other universities manage their courses can be very instructive. The other part of the job, ensuring a compatibility of standards in exam questions, while being a considerable responsibility, is also interesting. I have recently been appointed external examiner for the University of Kent’s forensic science course, and I’m looking forward to that. (I also do forensic science teaching at Keele, in case you are wondering!).

Late in June, I was an invited speaker at a retirement symposium for a colleague at Kent, Professor Alan Chadwick. The one-day event was entitled ‘Structure and dynamics in the solid state‘, and it took place in a very scenic location next to Canterbury Cathedral. It was a wonderful occasion, and one of my highlights of the year.

In July I attended the Europhysical Conference on Defects in Insulating Materials which was held in Pécs, Hungary. This was an excellent conference, both scientifically and socially, and coincided with a heat wave in mainland Europe. Midday temperatures reached 40 degrees C, which is hard to believe after the recent freezing weather we have experienced! I presented a paper and was a co-author on several posters.

August was marked by my annual pilgrimage to the Great British Beer Festival, held at Earls Court. It was as good as ever, but if anything it has become a victim of its own success, with very high attendances, making the evenings and the days later in the week uncomfortable due to the sheer number of people!  The best way round this is to attend early in the week, and to go to the trade session, especially as that is when the Champion Beer of Britain is announced.

As usual in September, I attended the British Science Festival, which was held at Aston University and also included events held elsewhere in the West Midlands. As organiser ( ‘Recorder’) of the Chemistry section, I am responsible for putting on the Chemistry events at the Festival, and there were at least 7 such events during the week. I was pleased with our events, but attendance was disappointing, especially given the city-centre location of Aston University.

And so we come to the last 3 months of 2010. They literally disappeared in a whirl of teaching and administration; the teaching including general chemistry, solid state chemistry and arson and ballistics!  It is also worth noting that we have record numbers of students in our first year at Keele (around 100), which will present challenges in the years to come. But these are challenges which are good to have! I did manage to keep my research going during this time, largely thanks to my 2 PhD students, Tom Littleford and Scott Walker.

2010 ended, as far as work was concerned, with a conference, the RSC Solid State Group’s Christmas meeting, held at UCL. This was the 30th anniversary meeting, and it was particularly appropriate to hold the meeting at UCL, where the first such meeting was held in 1980. It was an excellent meeting, and was a testament to the strength of the subject of solid state chemistry in the UK and worldwide.

Apart from attending the beer festival, I had some nice short breaks during the year in London and Glasgow (where my wife is my knowledgeable guide). I spent Christmas at Keele, and the last night of the year at my mother’s house in Wenhaston, Suffolk.

In retrospect, 2010 was a very average year, and it is hard to say at this stage if 2011 will be any different. But it is the International Year of Chemistry, which is surely something to celebrate!

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