Something to say

27/06/2024

My Education and Academic experiences

Reflections on my Education and Academic Experiences.

By Malcolm Mackley

This is a summary (written in 2023 and tweaked in 2024) of my schooling background and academic experiences at four different Universities. Writing this document has (belatedly) made me realise that the ‘whole’ education experience  is very important in relation to what people do with their whole  lives.

Primary Schools.

I was born in 1947 at Ipswich Suffolk. My father (Harold) made cement (Blue Circle) and my mother (Helen) was a teacher. I was one of four children. In 1950 my father was transferred from Claydon cement works Ipswich to work at Cliffe in Kent and the family moved to Gravesend.

I now have absolutely no recollection of my life in Ipswich, however since then, I have developed a certain pride and loyalty at having been born there.

  • Dover Rd School. (Now Copperfield Academy, Gravesend Kent). Mixed

1951-1954

Dover Rd was a State Preparatory School within walking distance of our first Gravesend home. I only have vague memories of a happy school, children’s birthday parties and being rewarded by canteen staff with a piece of fudge when I was sent over to deliver the daily, class lunch numbers. I also recall the class was sent home early when there was a particularly heavy ‘Thames/London’ smog. This was a good start to my schooling and I believe I was a happy child.

  • St Josephs Catholic Preparatory School.  (Gravesend, Kent (Closed 2021). Mixed

1954-1958

Happy memories of being taught well mostly by Nuns. St Josephs was a catholic fee paying school. We moved within Gravesend and I believe my mother arranged for me to go to St Josephs where I was able to walk to school on my own. My father was working then as a production foreman involving night shift work and my mother taught remedial children at a state secondary school. I enjoyed school and performed reasonably well but not well enough to go to the Gravesend Grammar School; however I did get a place at the local Technical School.

During this period I developed a close friendship with two similar aged boys who lived nearby, Richard and John. We dug holes in each other’s parents’ gardens and used them as camps. We had a fantastic Hornby shared train set and Match Box series vehicles where we pooled together all our toys. But, most of all we had an incredible Napoleonic Fort to play in. Both Richard’s and my own father worked for Blue Circle cement and they were founder members of the ‘Blue Circle Sailing Club’ based in a clay quarry on the Cliffe Marshes by the side of the Thames estuary. A Club house was established in an adjacent Thames Fort and this was a paradise for young boys. We had a fantastic time both on and off the water. Highlights in my memory were overnight camping by the side of the sailing clubs disused clay quarry sailing area. Richard, John and I would go night rowing in a boat called Turmoil that leaked and we had to go ashore regularly to fill the leaks with fresh clay. There were scary giant eels in the water and that added drama/excitement to the trips. Guy Fawkes night was celebrated with a big bonfire in the centre of the Fort where sailing club families gathered. We would go up to the control tower of the fort and (recklessly) fire rockets with ‘Little Demon bangers’ fixed onto them at the crowd below.

At home, both my parents were away for a lot of the time. My mother teaching and my father doing night shifts at the cement works and having to sleep in the day. When my father was free, he introduced me to sailing at the Blue Circle Sailing Club and sometimes on a Saturday when he was working, he would take me around the cement works on his daily rounds. This was a great experience, both in terms of seeing how my father was able to handle the workforce in a friendly and very effective way, together with experiencing being a child in a very grown up environment.

Family sailing with my father 1950s

Secondary Education.

  • Gravesend Technical High School.  (Now Northfleet Technical College). Boys only

1958-1963

I have happy memories of cycling to this school that was initially located in the centre of Gravesend and then, in Northfleet. Woodwork and metalwork classes were memorable and so too was Engineering Drawing which I particularly enjoyed. No languages, but a great history teacher who drove a Morgan sports car. Very good maths and Physics teachers but an incredibly poor Chemistry teacher. I recall once being ‘rulered’ by the Headmaster, and also when the whole class had to write the word ‘parallel’ out fifty times as a punishment for making a noise in class.

In the year before taking my O levels my father was promoted to production manager at a new cement factory being built at Westbury, Wiltshire. I stayed on at Gravesend for a year living with my grandparents and then with my brother (Ian) and his wife (Daphne). In fact, I spent most of my daylight hours with my friend Richard and his family, together with sailing at the Blue Circle Sailing Club.

The result was 8 O levels.

  • Bath Technical College. (Now Bath College). Mixed

1963-1965

My Bath College days started with a near two-mile cycle ride to Westbury train station; then a half hour train journey to Bath with beautiful views of scenic countryside. My interest in girls was strengthening and I ‘fell in love’ with a girl that regularly got on the train at Bradford on Avon, but I was too shy to ever speak to her. My A level class at  Bath Technical College was with an eclectic mix of youths, some of which had been thrown out, or left the school where they did O Levels. I became part of a ‘Wiltshire County’ set with one particular friend, Frank who would turn up in various very sporty sports cars. My teachers were good and I worked and played hard.

The result. 3 good A levels in pure and applied maths plus physics.

The move to Wiltshire together with my father inheriting a small property portfolio had an effect on our family life. My younger sister Angela acquired a taste for ponies and I would drive her to various gymkhanas in the family Land Rover. My sailing skills increased immensely learning how to race my father’s Enterprise at the local Shearwater Sailing Club which was part of Longleat Estate. The Shearwater lake was scenic and a very tricky place to sail. Sailing, with my elder sister Valerie crewing, we gradually caught up with, and then passed the local hot shot Peter Perry who usually won the races in a very competitive fleet. I remember Peter presenting me with a tankard at the clubs annual prize giving. That gesture meant a lot to me.

During summer holidays, I worked for an ex-army Colonel Rosser Rees at Heywood House, Wiltshire ‘teaching English’ to a select group of Arab and Middle Eastern children from wealthy parents. I was teaching a class of about fifteen each morning and in the afternoon driving them on trips, or taking games. Quite a challenging task for someone so young?

Universities

University of Leicester. 

1965-1968

  • Physics.

In 1965 if you wanted to read Physics, most UK Universities required a knowledge of German. Leicester was one of a few that relaxed that requirement and so that’s where I went. I did well in my first year coming top of class in exams and I was also recruited to be a team member in a fledgling Leicester University sailing team that had been set up and masterminded by a second year student, Paul Bateman. In my second year I shared a flat with Paul. He was a brilliant sailor, organiser and home cook. He left University with a modest degree in mathematics however subsequently he showed his true colours to become Director, then Chief Executive of a world leading bank. Paul was extremely bright! With the departure of Paul, my third year became difficult with ‘girl friend’ trouble and I ended up with a middle 2nd class degree. The failings were my own, however I wanted to continue studying Physics.

On reflection I didn’t really learn a lot of Physics at Leicester. There were some lecturers who tried to engage the class, but in general it was all rather mechanical and distant. I failed to revise properly on past papers and there was very little one-to-one contact with the staff. I was naïve in relation to female relationships and still had a lot to learn ‘about both physics and growing up’.

Bristol University.

1968-1976

  • Physics.

I wanted to do ‘useful’ physics and was very fortunate to be accepted for an MSc in Material Science at Bristol University. This marked the beginning of a life changing experience working alongside some brilliant people at the H. H. Wills Physics Department. The MSc course was excellent for all of the twenty participating students, with good lectures and a regular ‘hands on’ experimental programme, including X Ray experimental analysis and Electron Microscopy. There was direct contact with the academics and it became obvious to me that Material Science research in Bristol Physics was of the highest level. Much of the motivation and excellence came from a Professor Sir Charles Frank who in these early stages was quite distant but clearly brilliant and an inspiration to other Professors and staff in the department.

I initially shared an apartment in Clifton with four other Phd students who were studying a variety of subjects and this became a centre of my social life. Regular fun Bridge nights after work became a feature and I was happy to be learning a lot about both life and Physics.

One evening after work, I met my future wife Margaret in the University ‘Long Bar’ and that marked the beginning of a rapid romance and marriage in 1970. We were now two and her influence on me has been immense from our first meeting until the present time.

Margaret and Malcolm at Westbury Wilts 1969

On conclusion of my MSc, Professor Andrew Keller (FRS) offered me the opportunity to do a PhD in his Polymer Science research group. Andrew was a remarkable, highly driven Hungarian scientist who in 1957 ‘discovered polymer chain folding in polyethylene crystals’. His work was worthy of a Nobel prize. He was a world leading scientist in both synthetic and natural polymers and perhaps it is only now, that the real value of his discoveries can be fully appreciated.

During my PhD and later, Margaret and I had two daughters and the need to maintain finances for a young family was always uppermost in my mind. Margaret stopped teaching when the children arrived and future decisions were dictated by the level of our monthly bank balance.

The first year of my PhD took me up a scientific ‘blind alley’ and after that, at the Suggestion of Sir Charles Frank I was given a new task to explore the effect of flow on the crystallisation of polyethylene solutions. This left only two years to complete my funding of a PhD. Much of my work was experimental, devising and building a novel apparatus, and this was where my past technical schooling came into use. I was able to work well with Bristol workshop staff and this enabled me to build a unique and effective apparatus.  The results were new and formed the basis for the completion of a Phd within the allotted time.

Andrew Keller provided funding for me to continue as a Post Doctoral student up to my departure from Bristol in 1976. This was very special period of my life when I was working with both Andrew Keller and Sir Charles Frank. I worked hard and came into the Department most Saturday mornings to have scientific exchanges, particularly with Charles Frank when he became head of Department. Margaret got to know Frank’s wife, Maita and we started to go regularly with our young children to their delightful Orchard Cottage home.

Towards the end of my sojourn in Bristol, I collaborated with Sir Michael Berry. He is one of the most brilliant physicist I have worked with. I provided experimental results and he did the theory for what I consider to be one of my ‘best’ pieces of scientific work. Michael had captured my imagination from the moment I went to Bristol. On one of the Department staircases he had an early poster copy of a David Hockney Swimming Pool scene which Michael used to illustrate an aspect of a light caustic theory that he was developing at the time.

Bristol was incredible and I was sad to leave, however securing a job that could support our young family was a top priority. I now realise Sir Charles Frank was one of the most influential persons (apart from my wife Margaret) in my entire life.

Sussex University. 

1976-1979

  • Applied Sciences.  (now Engineering and Design)

Whilst at Sussex we lived as a young family in the scenic (idyllic) village of Iford some five miles from the University. Professor Robert Cahn was head of a rather isolated and maverick Materials Science group within the Applied Sciences Department and I was flattered and surprised to secure a position there. My arrival in 1976 coincided with the departure of Lord Asa Briggs as Vice Chancellor of Sussex University who was replaced by Sir Denys Wilkinson. These men were very different. Where Asa had said yes to most student demands, Denys Wilkinson said no. This resulted in three years of turbulent friction between the University and the undergraduates resulting in very militant action by the students, particularly in Applied Science where staff (in my view correctly) said there should be first year undergraduate exams, but where the Arts side of the University had relaxed that condition.

The campus is set in beautiful surroundings and there were many outstanding academics working at Sussex when I was there. However, the 9am-5pm weekday campus environment at Sussex was very different to my experience at Bristol. I recall attending a research seminar in the chemistry department and being asked when I arrived whether I was in the right place. There was also tension within the Department of Applied Sciences between hard line engineers and more science oriented academics.

On the very positive side, my own interest in fluid flow patterns that had developed at Bristol drew me into a collaboration with Graeme Knott who was part of the Control Engineering section of Applied Science. Graeme was another quite brilliant intellect with whom I have worked and together we carried out experiments using a wave tank that he had built. The project involved wave energy and it introduced me to the importance of unsteady flows. We published a long paper that I consider to be of high quality.

I set up a fledgling research group and was fortunate to recruit three PhD students. Within a few months of starting at Sussex, Margaret and I took two of the new PhDs back to our lovely Iford cottage for supper. That evening there was a knock at the door and the manager of the farm, that dominated essentially all of Iford, came and asked if Margaret would stay overnight to comfort the farm secretary’s wife because one of the cowmen had shot and killed her husband. We were all shocked and the students must have wondered what was going on. Later it emerged that the farm secretary had been having a series of affairs with the cowman’s wife. The poor cowman was of limited intellect and decided the only way to resolve the issue was to use his shotgun aiming between the farm secretary’s legs. My sympathies were with the cowman and I visited him in Lewes prison whilst he was awaiting trial. He was charged with murder which, at the trial, was reduced to manslaughter. Whilst the physical appearance of our idyllic Sussex village had not changed, the dynamic of our subsequent life in Iford seemed different.

Whilst at the University, I meet a Dr John Westhead who was the CEO of a diverse electronics company called Bowthorpe Holdings. His company was involved with plastics and he generously made me a consultant. John was charming and very clever. I learnt a lot from the way he operated and I consider him to have been a ‘significant influencer’ on my later life.

I was in my third year at Sussex University when Alan Windle, who I had previously met at Bristol, suggested that there was a vacant position for a polymer scientist in the Chemical Engineering Department at Cambridge. Alan was a Fellow of Trinity College and a lecturer in Material Science at the University. I travelled to Cambridge and met John Davidson who was Head of the Chemical Engineering Department and some of the staff. I recall returning to Sussex unsure which direction to take.  The decision to go to Cambridge after such a short time at Sussex was not easy, but John Venables from the Physics Department at Sussex strongly swayed me by saying. ‘If you have the opportunity to go to Cambridge, you should take it.

Cambridge University.  

1979-2011

  • Chemical Engineering.   (Now Chemical Engineering and Biotechnology)

Three decades at Cambridge University was a massive learning curve for me. Initially very challenging, then very rewarding and now reflecting back; an amazing and privileged experience.

The University arranged for our young family to live temporarily in an apartment whilst the Edwardian House we had purchased in central Cambridge was made liveable. Being able to cycle to The Chemical Engineering Department from both locations was a wonderful thing to do. Our initial impression of Cambridge was joy. The pressures of Iford and the troubles of University life at Sussex University evaporated and we were in paradise.

The reality of paradise emerged for me with the beginning of the Michaelmas (Autumn) term. Overnight I had turned from a physicist to a Material Scientist and now a Chemical Engineer. My research had remained consistent throughout Bristol, Sussex and Cambridge, however now I needed to both know and immediately teach undergraduate Chemical Engineering subjects.

I found the style of operation at Cambridge in 1979 very much in the spirit. ‘OK here you are, here’s an office, here’s very bright students; now just get on with it.’ In hindsight, this was all very challenging, however at the time I do not remember panic or undue concern. There was so much to do in terms of setting up a research base involving moving equipment from Sussex, and establishing our family at Cambridge. Money was tight and we had bought what was to be a wonderful family home. The house had previously been poorly modified into flats and then left empty for a number of years.

I did find time to continue sailing small racing dinghies. Each Sunday we would drive the 60 miles to the Royal Harwich Yacht Club near Ipswich where I would race my National Twelve dinghy. Sailing was one of the only things that stopped me thinking about ‘work’ and from the age of ten, I have continued to sail and race regularly. Sailing became part of our family life and this has certainly continued for me up to the present time.

My detailed memory of the first couple of years at Cambridge is now very hazy. There was so much to do and learn. Lectures needed to be written, exam questions set, undergraduates to supervise, research basis established and above all, understanding how Cambridge worked.  Below is a summary of some of the different aspects of my early Cambridge life.

  • Cambridge University in the 1980s

Cambridge University is obviously very special. When I arrived as a University lecturer, I signed a register that stated I was undertaking to join a place of, research, teaching and religion. There was no contract specifying hours of work or anything else and there was no formal link to the division of University and College duties.

I do recall an eminent professor saying to me in the 1980s, ‘Cambridge is so complicated, no one person can change it.’ At that time, the University/College system certainly operated with very devolved powers and the Vice Chancellor of the University was chosen by the rotation of different Head of Houses. In the 1980s, I estimate most of the ‘power’ of Cambridge resided within the Colleges, not the University.

By far the majority of University lecturers were from Cambridge itself or Oxford. This meant they automatically became Fellows of their respective Cambridge College or Oxford sister College and this resulted in me feeling something of an ‘oddball’ in an otherwise highly structured hierarchy.

The early 1980s marked a period when the University and Colleges were transitioning from being male dominated to a much more balanced male and female population. This was mainly initiated by male only Colleges realising that the undergraduate  performance of mixed Colleges was beginning to outperform that of men only. The transition was in fact surprisingly seamless.

I very quickly learnt that Cambridge takes its undergraduate teaching very seriously and does a very effective job at it, mostly through College supervisions. My own strength was experimental research, not teaching and this, combined with switching to Chemical Engineering presented me with serious challenges for a number of years.

The University was able to attract some of the ‘best’ students from the UK and the rest of the world and this applied to both undergraduate and Postgraduate students. Standards were consistently very high. Overseas students often came with prestigious scholarships that meant they were at the top of their class in their respective countries. Quality was everywhere not just academically, but also in music, sport, theatre and almost every aspect of student life.

  • The Department of Chemical Engineering

In 1979, The Department of Chemical Engineering was something of a male bastion although by engineering standards there was a respectable, (maybe 10-15%) percentage of female undergraduates. Margaret Sampson was the secretary to the Department Head and I quickly learnt that she and a Dr Denys Armstrong, made the Department work. Dr Armstrong was a Fellow of Churchill College followed by, St Johns and he and Margaret Sampson efficiently did the job that perhaps now ten-fifteen Departmental administrators and assistants would be doing in 2023. My Head of Department (HOD), Prof John Davidson had recently taken over from Professor Peter Danckwerts who was a brilliant Chemical Engineer but probably not a natural HOD. John was a new broom, recruiting young academics from outside the main field of Chemical Engineering in order to widen subject relevance to polymers, biotechnology and new chemistry techniques.

When I arrived, there was a staff only, morning ‘First Class Tea’ inner sanctum in the department that some ten years later was abandoned for a more equitable ‘All comer’s tea room’. However, at the start of my Cambridge career I needed to endure the very formal atmosphere of first class tea.

  • Undergraduate teaching

The Cambridge Tripos system was (and still is) about passing yearly exams and much of the Tripos in Chemical Engineering centred on the students ability to answer exam questions. Departmental examples sheets and College supervisions were all focused on students being able to solve quantitative exam Tripos questions. The setting of these questions by staff was taken extremely seriously and as a safeguard, examiners were expected to be able to correctly solve questions that had been set by other examiners.

A typical Chemical Engineering supervision consisted of four students for a weekly one hour supervisions and this involved setting say four past Tripos questions that on the following week were the basis for discussion, explanation, debate or correction. My first few years at Cambridge was therefore a formidable task of getting up to speed in a number of subjects that was previously unfamiliar to me.

There was one aspect of undergraduate teaching that I immediately enjoyed. The final 4th year of the Chemical Engineering Tripos involved pairs of students undertaking a ‘Final year research project’. Right from the start, my mind was full of ideas suitable for this task and this part of supervision was terrific fun and very rewarding. Several high quality pieces of published research emerged from this area over the full thirty years that I spent at Cambridge. Student research projects was a real interface between undergraduate teaching and full research where I feel my experimental expertise came to the fore.

Compared to the ‘shock’ of having to learn how to teach ‘the Cambridge way’, I found setting up a research group relatively straightforward. Again the details are now lost in the mist of time, however I was highly motivated to get experiments going on polymer processing, liquid crystal polymers, rheology and fluid mechanics. In general, my PhD students were super bright and I progressively learnt how to help those that needed guidance and let others who did not need guidance, ‘do their own thing’.

Experimental research requires both funding and space. I was lucky that a number of my research topics were at the time favoured by large Chemical Companies such as Shell, BP and Unilever and this meant I did not have to solely rely on UK Government funding that throughout my academic career was highly competitive to secure. There was about a 10-15% chance of getting a successful grant application.

Laboratory space in the Department was also quite a territorial issue that needed to be handled with great care and looking back, I believe I coped well with that problem. Another important hot spot for me was the workshop. Much of my research involved designing and constructing new apparatus so, winning over the Departmental workshop was vital. Again, I feel I managed this task well and a lot of any success that was achieved  by my Polymer Fluids Group can be associated with a good working relationship between the departmental mechanical and electronics workshop together with the computer support officers.

 

Polymer Fluids research group 1990s

  • Robinson College.

I started at Cambridge without any College affiliation, and in Chemical Engineering, College supervisions were organised on a Departmental basis and so I needed to supervise across many different Colleges. At the start of my time at the university whenever I met someone, they would invariably ask me ‘and which College do you come from?’ The answer would be ‘I don’t have one.’ I was so adsorbed with establishing myself in the Department that not having a College was something of a blessing, however the feeling of ‘not belonging to a College’ began to creep in.

The Physicist, Professor Mick Brown was a founding Fellow of a then, new Robinson College and he was a good friend/admirer of Sir Charles Frank’s work. He kindly arranged for me to supervise in Physics at Robinson and then I acted as a Director of Studies for the College in Chemical Engineering. Eventually Robinson realised that I was not going to ‘run away’ with the little silver that they had and made me a Fellow in 1986. The founding warden of the College was the chemist, Sir Jack (Later Lord) Lewis. I got on well with Jack and consider him to be one of the most significant people who influenced my Cambridge life. Jack had superb skills at handling people and I recall two stories he told about Cambridge and College life. ‘If you put two Cambridge academics on a dessert island; one will form a college and not allow the other to be a member’. Also, ‘Controlling a College Fellowship is like herding sheep.’

Lord Lewis and Sir Sam Edwards, who was a renowned theoretical Physicist at the Cavendish Laboratory in the 1980s, seemed to ‘run’ the whole University. Sam transformed polymer science in Cambridge giving the subject high-level academic credibility and I was very fortunate to ride his wave of interest in polymers and my own work.

In hindsight, I was very fortunate to be associated with Robinson. The College was new and finding its way being a modern College, but at the same time maintaining some of the traditional customs of the long established Colleges. Lord Lewis was a master at handling people and I identified with nearly all his actions, in particular his desire for inclusivity. At that time most of the traditional Colleges required Fellows to dine in college on their own or with guests, but not with their wives!  Jack encouraged Fellows to dine weekly with their wives (or partners if they had one). By Cambridge standards, this was quite radical, but for my wife Margaret, she was able to feel ‘part of the college’ and this helped avoid possible tension between my own loyalty to family or college life. There was however one occasion where Jack and I did not agree. David Robinson founded the College in 1979 and he set it up so that the College had to pay for its own existence by running conferences. In the early 1990s Robinson entered an agreement to expand the Colleges facilities at Wyboston, some twenty miles from Cambridge. The agreement was flawed and I was the only Fellow on the Colleges Governing Body to challenge what the current Bursar at that time was putting forward. This was a very lonely stance and I recall driving out to Wyboston with Lord Lewis to review the situation. We agreed to disagree but remained on good terms. It was only some years later that I was proved right, but before then I sensed being isolated by nearly all the Fellowship.

 

Robinson College

  •  The 1990s and 2000s

On reflection, the 1980s were pretty tough. At the time, I just got my head down and did the best I could. My research group was growing in size and it was very exciting to see a series of final year-student research projects pioneering our oscillatory flow mixing (OFM) invention. The initial idea came from experiments that I carried out with Graeme Knott at Sussex, where eddy mixing through oscillation was ‘energy sapping bad news’ for wave energy devices. At Cambridge and now in a Chemical Engineering environment, we discovered that mild oscillation in a periodically baffled tube could produce very controlled mixing for liquids with a broad range of applications including a so called ‘plug flow reactor’. This work gave me some credibility amongst the Chemical Engineering community. I was turning into a real Chemical Engineer!  The polymer and rheology work was also continuing and I was moving towards a very broad research portfolio. Having ‘lots of balls up in the air’ at any one time can be useful, particularly in terms of getting grants from either companies or the government. Subjects can quickly come and go in fashion over very short timescales. Most science and engineering academics tend to focus on just one or two research topics in order to make a genuine impact. In my case, I was unwittingly following a different route.

A highlight of the 1990s was the discovery of ‘flexible chocolate’. The background to this invention was a number of years’ earlier work on ‘ram extruding low entanglement high molecular weight polyethylene’ just below its normal melting temperature. This had been successful, however a Dutch Chemical Company (DSM) had a general patent that covered this particular process and so I was not able to get any commercial funding to use the technology. This was not the first time DSM patents had blocked my ideas for polymers and so I looked for other materials that had a range of melting points and chocolate was a potential candidate. I tried a ram extrusion experiment on chocolate and found that not only did it extrude, but it also was flexible for a short period after extrusion.

A new process and product ‘flexible chocolate’ had been discovered! I shared the findings with a colleague in Nestle and this started a five year odyssey where they developed the commercial technology and at Cambridge we studied the science.

At the time (1994) chocolate was not really considered to be a material ‘worthy’ of study at Cambridge. In both the Department and at my College there were those that disapproved of studying chocolate at Cambridge, commercial exploitation, or Nestle (because it was a period where Nestle had baby milk difficulties in Africa). The whole Cambridge Chocolate project was a roller coaster experience for me with generally very positives results. I was very fortunate to have a superb patent agent, Peter Dummett working on my side to negotiate terms with Nestle, whilst I was able to concentrate on the science.

The late 1990s probably marked the high spot of my Polymer Fluids Group work. Chocolate; Oscillatory Flow Mixing (OFM) and the development of our very own Multipass Rheometer (MPR) meant the Group activities were intense and very diverse. It was a fantastic period where our weekly Group research meetings were fun and very stimulating.

 

              Robert Marshall demonstrating flexible Chocolate

In 1998, Margaret and I spent one of my sabbaticals at Sophia Antipolis where I worked with a colleague Professor Jean Francois Agassant from the Ecole des Mines de Paris. In the 1970s the Parisian Engineering School had been instructed by the French Government to do research in the South of France and they had set up a Material Science laboratory at a new Technology Park in Sophia Antipolis which is near Nice and Antibes.

Our three-month stay resulted in us subsequently buying a holiday apartment in Antibes with a wonderful view of the Mediterranean. At the time, I was working incredibly hard at Cambridge and we would ‘escape’ there for long weekends, flying from Stansted Airport to Nice. I started crewing a ‘Dragon Class’ keelboat sailing out of Cannes and life was ‘very full on’ and a lot of fun.

The 2000s was a period at Cambridge where my Group got heavily involved with both EU and UK, EPSRC major projects. The EU polymer processing projects were exciting and involved collaborations right across Europe with both industrial and academic organisations. Trips to Spain, France, Holland and Italy with my students were always scientifically interesting and a great adventure. UK based projects focused on understanding the science behind certain ink jet technologies and these involved visits to Leeds, London and Sheffield all of which helped to generate ideas and friendships. Travel to other International countries occurred through invitations, Conferences and lecture tours and again enabled both Margaret and I to experience everyday life in countries such as China, America, South Korea, Australia, Indonesia and Malaysia.

My involvement in both the Department of Chemical Engineering and Robinson College was very intense and in terms of College life, involved a stint of three years being Deputy Warden at Robinson.

In 2003, I was made a Fellow of the Royal Academy of Engineering, which of course was a great honour. I also recall after a Friday night Robinson College Dinner, one of the senior founding Fellows of the College (Professor Mikulas Teich ) coming up to me and say ‘Malcolm, with you as Deputy Warden of the College, I feel reassured that the College will be in good hands.’ This meant a huge amount to me as very rarely do Cambridge academics say ‘well done’ to other Cambridge academics or College Fellows. Mikulas’ words were both unexpected and very reassuring.

Sadly, in 2008 further new research projects and College activity was however brought to an end when I had a severe attack of Shingles in the late 2000s.  I was doing too much and was suddenly confronted by acute pain and an inability to think clearly. Unfortunately, I compounded the problem by pretending that I was OK to continue with lecturing and normal duties.  At the time, I had also agreed to introduce a course in the Chemical Engineering Department on Ethics. The course involved choosing a subject, such as Nuclear Power and selecting two teams of prechosen students to give presentations for or against the selected subject. At the end of the session, the students in the audience were asked to vote whether they were for or against the chosen topic. The course was not popular with some of the students who thought it was not my job to teach  ethics. In hindsight I feel I was absolutely right to encourage debate on ‘major ethical issues’, however my timing was wrong, as at that time I was riddled with shingles.

Because I stupidly tried to continue working whilst having shingles, the virus persisted for over two years and it eventually became clear, even to me, that it was time to plan for retirement. This meant stopping having new PhD students and waiting two or three years for the current cohort of PhDs to complete their thesis.

I retired from the University in 2011 and Margaret and I moved to Salcombe in Devon. The word retirement sounds very final and in fact, I continued to be ‘research active’ from a distance until 2020.

  • University of life, then and now.

Peter Swinnerton Dyer (1927-2019) an ex Cambridge Vice Chancellor is quoted of saying. ‘You can never observe Cambridge changing. You can only observe that it has changed.’ He is absolutely right. During my thirty years at Cambridge, I experienced changes and now, thirteen years after I left Cambridge, it is clear that further significant further changes have occurred.

University life has changed out of all recognition between the 1970s and now, some fifty years later. Of course life in general has changed dramatically during that period too, however the changes in UK universities has been far greater than general trends. The main transition has been about the way UK universities used to be thought of as ‘ivory towers of academic excellence.’ Now, they are billion pound commercial enterprises.

In the 1970s, Universities were financed by a central UGC Government fund and university undergraduates received student grants to assist with their studies. This has now been totally turned around, with students having to pay upfront for all their education and the transition has resulted in Universities becoming major businesses.

Even Cambridge has not been immune to changes. Their financial constraints have been less affected when compared with the proliferation of other UK universities that have been created during this period. However, Cambridge University has also gone down the route of support staff proliferation, which has affected every aspect of higher educational life.

Where in the 1980s there used to be one administrator, there are now, ten or twenty. I recall in the 1980s an eminent Cambridge Professor saying to me, ‘The university really does need to get someone in place to pay in the cheques that it receives’. When I started there was literally one lady, (Mrs Ansell) who managed the research contracts of the whole University. She was ridiculously overworked and it could take at least six months to get a research contract signed off in order to proceed.  The University and Departments now have multiple layers of research staff administrators and this is multiplied many times by other areas of activity such as computer support, building support, safety support, Human Resources support, wellbeing support, public relations support, outreach support and more! So, the complexity of Universities has multiplied immensely, along with the size of the salaries of University Vice Chancellors, who are now essentially Chief Executives of major businesses.

Sadly, the excitement of academic studies, teaching and research seems to have got a bit lost in this mass of bureaucracy and financial tension. Yes, we live in an ever changing world, but UK Universities have been starved of Government funding and the freedoms that they have enjoyed in the past.

Malcolm Mackley    November 2023

 

 

 

 

 

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