Five minutes with Prof Saiful Islam

We chat with Prof Saiful Islam about his 2016 CHRISTMAS LECTURES, 'Supercharged: Fuelling the future'.

  • Saiful Islam

    Saiful Islam, the 2016 Christmas Lecturer.

    Credit: Paul Wilkinson
  • Saiful Islam on the Millenium Bridge

    Saiful Islam, the 2016 Christmas Lecturer.

    Credit: Paul Wilkinson
  • Saiful Islam in Faraday's lab

    Saiful in Michael Faraday's lab.

    Credit: Paul Wilkinson

Tell us a little about yourself

I am Professor of Materials Chemistry at the University of Bath, having previously completed my Chemistry degree and PhD at University College London, a postdoctoral fellowship at the Eastman Kodak Labs in Rochester, New York, USA,and then a Lectureship at the University of Surrey.

In terms of my research work, I’m a chemist who doesn’t wear a white lab coat; my research involves using powerful computer modelling techniques to investigate how energy-related materials behave at the atomic level. This knowledge is used to help design new materials for next generation clean energy devices such as lithium batteries, solar cells and fuel cells. So when people ask me what I do, I sometimes say ‘I model’!

Tell us about your work

The supply of clean, sustainable energy is one of the greatest challenges of the 21st century. Energy is essential to our modern society, our economy and our way of life.

All of the devices and technology we currently use to transform and store green energy, such as lithium batteries and solar panels, rely on specific materials in order to work. The rechargeable lithium-ion battery has helped the portable electronics revolution and now plays a crucial role in electric vehicles to cut carbon emissions and in grid storage of electricity from renewable sources such as wind and solar.

If we want to find new and improved forms of technology to help meet our growing energy needs, then we need to develop better materials first.

How and why did you become a scientist?

I grew up in Crouch End, London walking distance from Alexandra Palace where the BBC broadcast the CHRISTMAS LECTURES from for the first time. I went to a local comprehensive school – which sadly doesn’t exist anymore. I was always good at science but I can’t say I was truly passionate about it when I was at school. I actually enjoyed English Literature – largely because of the O level book To Kill a Mockingbird! Back then, my parents were keen for me to pursue a career in medicine, but I wasn’t so keen.

I remember going to the Royal Institution when I was about 15 for a fantastic schools lecture on light and colours by another Christmas Lecturer George Porter. I think that was the first time I realised that chemistry could be done as a full-time job.

It was during my PhD at UCL and postdoc years at Eastman Kodak New York (in the late 1980s) when I was researching superconductors that I really became excited about science, and about materials chemistry in particular. My studies coincided with the discovery of high temperature superconductivity in copper-oxide ceramic materials by German scientists Georg Bednorz and K. Alex Müller, for which they won the 1987 Nobel Prize. This was an incredible achievement but the pace of discovery in this field was such that only a few months later, Paul Chu from the University of Houston in Texas announced that his team had broken their record and achieved superconductivity at an even higher temperature.

I remember attending conferences in the US round that time which were packed with scientists working on superconductors just like me from all over the world, and it was thrilling to feel part of such a dynamic international community.

Can you tell us more about this year’s Lectures?

The story is about something invisible, but which drives everything around us, from our bodies to mobile phones; from cars on the road to all stars in the universe…that is ENERGY.

We’ll learn about the energy that powers our homes, the energy that powers our cars and gadgets on the go, and the energy that powers the most important machine of them all… our own bodies.

We’ll explain how energy cannot be created or destroyed, only transformed from one form to another. The three Lectures will take us on a journey through these powerful transformations to inspire the next generation of scientists.

And throughout each Lecture we will share the incredible history of the Lectures in this special 80th anniversary year by recreating some of the most memorable demos with the help of some very special guests.

Did you watch the Lectures as a child? 

Christmas was a big TV occasion for my family when I was growing up. It was the only time of the year when we would buy the Radio Times and together we’d circle what we wanted to watch on TV. My parents, especially my dad, were very keen for my two younger sisters and I to get a good education.

I remember bits of previous Ri CHRISTMAS LECTURES such as Carl Sagan’s ‘The Planets’ in 1977 (when I was aged 14) and then much later Richard Dawkins (1991) 'Growing up in the Universe'.

It’s amazing to think that I will be presenting the CHRISTMAS LECTURES 80 years after they were televised for the first time in 1936 from Alexandra Palace, only walking distance away from where I grew up in Crouch End.

What do you want the young audience to take away after watching your Lectures?

I would like to ignite a spark of excitement and a deeper understanding of energy.

I also want children to understand that the pursuit of science is the proper way to unravel the mysteries of the world around us and is full of beauty and exciting discovery.

And for viewers of all ages, I’d like people to understand that materials chemistry plays a crucial role in developing new, clean energy technologies, one of the biggest challenges facing our society today.

What motivates you to be a science communicator as well as a scientist?

I find science communication to be incredibly enjoyable and challenging. It’s a fantastic opportunity to inspire and inform a wider audience about materials for energy. Hopefully they will help to create a further buzz about chemistry and the global energy challenge.

I use 3D images and 3D glasses for the audience to illustrate the crystal structures of lithium battery and solar cell materials that I work on. I think they help to show that chemistry can reveal the intricacy and beauty of matter at the atomic level, which can be as visually aesthetic as the arts.

On another level, my research is indirectly funded by the taxpayer through the research councils, and so I feel public engagement is important to answer their questions and explain the impact of my research.

As someone from the Asian community, you represent a minority group in science. How do you feel about being a role model for the next generation?

Promoting diversity in science is very important and I’m honoured to be a member of the Royal Society’s Diversity Committee. I think excellence and creativity in science are strengthened by ensuring diversity and equality across its activities, by increasing participation from all people regardless of gender, race and background, which would help draw from the widest talent pool possible.

Despite what my name implies, I am an atheist and humanist – I value living in open tolerant society based on reason and humanity. I don’t know if I’m a role model but I’d be very happy if I did encourage younger generations to stay in science. When I give schools talks I mention my school background and that they should always try to follow their passion but also to put in the hard work.


Follow Saiful on Twitter at @SaifulChemistry and search for #xmaslectures for all the latest news and behind the scenes updates.

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