#MondayMaterials Episode 20 – Professor Bill Sampson
#MondayMaterials 4th April 2016
As we are, somehow, already at the 20th episode of #MondayMaterials, we thought we’d celebrate the landmark with something a little bit special. So today we’re bringing you a fantastic interview with our very own Head of School, Professor Bill Sampson.
I’ve been lucky enough to chat with Bill on various occasions now, and it’s exciting to hear about the vision he has for the School of Materials. But, when interviewing him, I thought that what you’d all really want to know was a little bit more about the man himself. So here he is, talking research, impact, inspirations, and interests. I hope you enjoy reading the interview as much as I enjoyed conducting it:
Hi Bill – thanks so much for chatting to us, I’m glad to finally be featuring you on the blog. Could you start by describing your research, for the layman, in ten sentences or less?
Sure, so my work concerns the structures and properties of fibrous materials. The most familiar to people would be paper, which is the material I started work with and that my group still do some work with today. But I also work with fibre reinforced composites which are used for manufacturing aircraft and automotive bodies and also in fibrous materials with potential for making screens and transparent devices.
So, when I’m talking about fibrous materials it’s anything made from long thin objects. And most of the stuff I do is with fibres that you can see.
Brilliant. So we’ve now met a Professor of Paint and a Professor of Paper. Can you tell us a bit about how your research can benefit the general public?
Yeah, so if I take the work I do in paper science then that’s really very fundamental work in a very well established industry. And paper, of course, is a very cheap material; a very cheap product. So the way you make paper cheap is by running your machines very, very fast, very, very wide, 24 hours a day and 50-odd weeks a year. So my work looks at getting the efficiency of the process improved so that you can make the paper quicker, with a more efficient use of raw materials, and using less energy – which means it’s very widely available and stays a ubiquitous material.
And that’s important for society generally just because people still read a lot on paper and it’s a material we use to express ourselves, whether in art or writing, whether writing music or words. I do most of my science using paper and a pencil before I do anything else.
And then when I come to the other fibrous materials that I work with, then again it’s about making the material more efficiently, usually lighter. Because most of my work is in structure so the mechanical properties are done by improving structures. And by improving structures you can make the material lighter, and that benefits people because we are using the planet less quickly. And that’s key.
And how did you first get interested in your research area?
I suppose my interest in my research area actually came before I even applied for university. So when I was at school I was involved in a printing society and the careers teacher suggested that I looked at the degree in paper science that was done in Manchester, which was the only place that you could do that course.
So I came up here and met a very enthusiastic admissions tutor, and when I left on that day I knew this was what I wanted to study. And because I found the material so interesting, even though it’s a very well-known material that’s very familiar to us, because I had the opportunity to study it in such depth – its manufacture and its properties and all aspects of it really – I stayed on to do my PhD here. I worked on a particular aspect of relating manufacturing efficiency to the forming structure of the sheet.
And once I decided that I wanted to be a researcher in paper, then it was a case of either going somewhere else for a post-doc or, as it happened, just when I was lined up for a post-doc somewhere else, there was a lectureship at Manchester. So I stayed here and developed my work much more into the structure of paper.
Then after a couple of years I went and spent six months in Toronto, where I learnt a technique called statistical geometry. This is a mathematical technique for determining the probability of different shapes that you get. And from that, I developed my research area into what it is now.
So although my focus was originally on paper, I can apply those same techniques to other materials. And that’s what I do.
Going back a bit further, could you tell us who or what first inspired your interests in science and engineering?
Because my science is very much mathematical science, I derive equations for structure or I write code to simulate properties, then maths is a really important part of what I do and in my creative work.
And there was a maths teacher at high school, a guy called John Hills, and he was quite simply brilliant. He explained stuff really well, he was extremely patient, and he just assumed that we would all do it in the end. There was no chance that any of us were going to fail. And we did all pass; and we all passed with good grades. So he would probably be the start, the maths teacher that I put it down to.
And I think that when it comes into science and engineering, well I could only really do science. I was dreadful at art. I was pretty awful at creative writing. I could do history and geography, but I thought I would probably get a career in science more than I would in those.
So the broader scientific context really came from applied maths, and putting it into physics.
Thanks, Bill. A great insight. So, moving away from work for a while, can you discuss your other interests? What do you get up to in your spare time?
Yeah, I had more spare time a long time ago!
But I do various things. I go walking; country walking. I have a dog. I have a family, of course, so I spend time with them. I do some gardening; I keep hens. I ride bicycles. I go swimming. So I do quite a bit of stuff. But mainly it’s things to keep me fit and to get me outside.
So when I go walking in the country, I always have a pair of binoculars with me. I’m not a twitcher, but I am a bit of a birdwatcher. I will spend a day out at a reserve, watching birds quite happily; and sometimes photographing them.
So wildlife, nature, being outside. That’s what I like to do.
Great stuff. And great photos! Last question, then. Can you tell us how being here in Manchester helped your work and research?
Well I’ve always been in Manchester for my work and research, for a start.
Obviously coming from an unusual discipline that was only done here in Manchester, it was the natural place for me to do my work. But actually, that also tells me why Manchester has been so good continuously: because even though my discipline of paper science is no longer studied as a degree in the University, and obviously I’ve pursued other avenues of related science, one of the greatest things that this University has done is that it’s never told me that I can’t research what I want to research. As long as I’m productive, I bring in some students, I bring in the grants and fund the activity, it’s never been said to me that I shouldn’t do this thing. And as a consequence our group, as small as it is, still has a really good reputation for the best work, internationally, in the area.
So Manchester, more than anything, has given me the freedom to research what I want to research and has never put any obstacles in the way of me doing it.
Brilliant, thanks Bill. What a fascinating interview and what a positive note to end on. It’s exciting to hear that you’ve been able to make your way through the University all the way from a undergrad to being a Head of School, and working in materials all the way as well!
Well I hope the rest of you enjoyed hearing from Bill as much as I did. If so, please leave your thoughts in the comments section. Thank you all for reading.