Spotlight on... Professor Ivan Parkin

Ivan Parkin
Ivan Parkin

This week we meet Professor Ivan Parkin, Dean of the Faculty of Mathematical & Physical Sciences. Here, he chats to us about having lunch with David Attenborough and shares his favourite novel which is among the longest works of fiction in the English language.

What is your role and what does it involve?

I am currently Dean of the Faculty of Mathematical & Physical Sciences at UCL. The Dean’s role is extremely varied, from helping to lead on strategy and guiding research and innovation directions and initiatives, to being responsible for education and the Faculty budget. I also run large a research group and give 20 lectures a year. This year I will mark around 110 essays and over 300 exam scripts.

How long have you been at UCL and what was your previous role?

I first came to UCL in 1988 to use the Nuclear Magnetic Resonance (NMR) instruments as a PhD student (I was studying at a rival technical college in South Kensington). I was appointed as Lecturer at UCL in 1993 - so around 28 years so far. Bizarrely, when I first walked into the Chemistry Department as a PhD student I somehow knew this was where I would spend my career. Prior to my current role as Dean, I spent over six years as the Head of the Chemistry Department at UCL.

What working achievement or initiative are you most proud of?

I am most proud of my graduated PhD students and past Postdoctoral Research Assistants. I keep in touch with most of them. They have gone on to varied and amazing careers - Director at Morgan Stanley, Chief Security Officers of major chemical companies, academics, lawyers, patent agents, teachers, researchers, start-up companies, engineers...

I have worked on gas sensors with ex-UCL employees Professor David Williams and Dr Geoff Henshaw. They went on to establish Aeroqual - a company that has now grown to 60 employees. They do gas sensor measurements - some nine million every day, to measure trace gases in 127 countries across the world. I have also had a 25-year relationship with Pilkington Glass, including working on the development of Activ glass - the world’s first self-cleaning glass. This glass works by the action of rainwater and sunlight to clean itself; around 2M m2 of this glass is sold per annum. The Christopher Ingold Building at UCL (home to the Chemistry Department) has this glass coating on the exterior surface.

Tell us about a project you are working on now which is top of your to-do list?

Top of my to-do list is to help the Mathematics and Statistics departments to co-locate through the Institute of Mathematical and Statistical Sciences (IMSS). In research, I have just been awarded an EPSRC grant with my long term collaborator Professor Carmalt to improve the efficiency of photovoltaic Solar Cells. I also have work on new battery materials and surfaces that reduce hospital acquired infection and bacteria/virus transmission.

What is your favourite album, film and novel?

My favourite novel is The Wheel of Time by Robert Jordan. It is, I think, the longest work of fiction in the English language - running to 14 volumes and 11,898 pages.  The audio book version takes over 19 days to recite. Thanks to my wife, eight of the series have been signed by the author. 

My favourite album is difficult to pin down. A random top three would be White Lilies Island by Natalie Imbruglia; Suzanne Vega by Suzanne Vega and Moving Pictures by Rush.

My favourite film is again tricky - I did like Zak Snyder’s Justice League, which I saw recently with my daughter.

What is your favourite joke (pre-watershed)?

I did my PhD on reactions of main group elements in liquid ammonia so I quite like this joke...

"Why do chemists find working with ammonia easy? Because it is pretty basic stuff."

Who would be your dream dinner guests?

David Attenborough the man is the closest thing we have to scientific royalty in the UK. Jonathan Agnew from Test Match Special has a super cricketing brain and wry humour. For his no-nonsense talking, The Duke of Edinburgh.

In ’name drop central’, I had lunch with the Duke of Edinburgh in 1981 (one of many people) for a school essay competition. I had a drink next to Jonathan Agnew by chance at Singapore airport on his way back from the ashes in 2018. And I had lunch with David Attenborough for the opening of the KLB building - the secret to his longevity: half a bottle of good French white wine a day. Combining the three would be very interesting...

What advice would you give your younger self?

Take time to smell the roses on the journey...

What would it surprise people to know about you?

A few things:

  • I have scored over 10,000 runs and taken 300 wickets in club cricket.
  • My brother is a tattoo artist.
  • I currently cycle over 3,000 miles a year (around 17,000 miles over the last five years).
  • I hold a University of London Division 1 winners medal for Football for the 1988-89 season.
  • I dislocated my shoulder in 2003 and it has occasionally popped out at meetings in UCL - I have to be careful not to raise my left arm to ask a question.

What is your favourite place?

The wilds of Milton Keynes. I particularly love All Saints Church in Loughton MK, where I live. It dates from 1219 AD. It has a ring of six bells and two date from 1450. The bells are rung most weeks for an hour around 8pm. It is a link with the past to know that the sounds from the bells are quite close to what people 670 years ago would also have heard.

You can hear Professor Parkin talking about "The Science of Face Masks" in this video.