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Reflections of Rideal Lecture Award winner Tom Healy

Tom Healy

Prof Tom Healy,  of the University of Melbourne, delivered the 2010 Rideal Lecture. Here he reflects on a lifetime of achievements.

You have had a long career in colloid and surface science for which you are being awarded the Rideal Lecture. What would you say are the highlights of your career?
TH: Having a team of colleagues from around the world with whom I still interact, and having a team of my ex-students whose careers I love to watch.

What drives your interest in colloid and surface science?
TH: I was blown away when I discovered the famous article-text by J.Willard Gibbs wherein he proposed a thermodynamic description of heterogeneous systems, where the area and energy of the boundary layer or interface became dominant, simply by making the area large!!

You have a reputation for bringing industry, government, and academia together to solve practical issues. What have been the most successful examples of this practice of yours?
TH: I have never defined my science as basic or fundamental or applied or as technologically significant. I just love solving problems whether they are assigned labels like the above.

The challenge of making a titanium dioxide pigment that gave super-durability to paint coatings involved complex, basic science, real applied processing-formulation science and the process of learning from plant people who were the ones who would actually make the pigment in mega-ton quantities, day in, day out.

Which would you say are the most pressing problems that can be solved by colloid and surface science at present?
TH: The control that the interface between phases (solid-liquid-gas) imposes on systems is central to solving major challenges facing medical science. We need to build clever colloidal structures to sense bio-molecule changes in implanted biosensors, to deliver precise levels of drugs to pathology sites via clever drug delivery platforms, to build bio-implant systems like the bionic cochlear ear for optical and nervous system recovery and to deliver palliative care systems to patients we are unable to help.

What are the main challenges or obstacles to solve those problems?
TH: The main challenge is achieving the correct balance of basic core science alongside biological systems understanding, coupled to an understanding of the key role of clinical medicine. It is the clinician who is confronted with the challenges faced by the patient. That clinician must synthesise an understanding of the bio-mechanisms being compromised in the patient. The medical scientist must then synthesise an understanding of how to build a biologically correct picture of the condition being identified. That bio-scientist must then challenge the scientists working in core chemical, physical and mathematical sciences to have them build expertise in science underpinning the medical conditions. There must be a constant two-way conversation between the various levels identified above.

You have also been recognised for your ability and your continued efforts mentoring your colleagues, especially younger ones. What is the value of mentoring?
TH: In 2006 I received an award for mentoring from Nature, which was very important to me. I had spent a life, a career mentoring generations of people (my students), without ever thinking I was mentoring them. I just felt privileged to have the position of working every day with bright young people who constantly challenge me both scientifically, culturally and personally. I never had a dull day in my life working with this tribe of young people.

Can you offer any advice for those who would like to mentor a colleague and don’t know where to start?
TH: Mentoring is based on an assumption that a leader has a responsibility to those he or she will lead that must also involve the whole person. You need to be a successful scientific leader as well as a resource to support the whole process the mentee is facing in 'growing up’.

What was the subject of your Rideal Lecture be?
TH: When I ‘grew up’ in colloid science, you had to learn to control dispersions of particles in water, or dispersion of particles in organic liquids. The rules said you dispersed hydrophilic (water loving) particles in water via standard control of attractive and repulsive forces between particles. Similarly, you controlled the dispersion of water hating (hydrophobic) particles in organic liquids using a separate set of approaches. Then, suddenly, someone (the market) asked us to disperse hydrophobic drug, colour and pigment particles in water, and to make dispersions of paint systems in water, rather than in organic fluids. Those challenges continue; my talk will highlight the role RSC and SCI figures had in making these impossible challenges happen.

Why is this topic so important to you?
TH: I love to think of myself sitting at a boundary or surface of a solid particle in a liquid. I imagine I can call up molecules to compatibilise the particle with the liquid, or to reject the particle from the liquid. I imagine myself as a circus trainer achieving impossible feats of magic as the particles come together, fuse, or repel one another or arrange themselves in to novel and exciting structure all under my control. A new paint system emerges, or a new food system is created, or a new drug delivery mechanism emerges, or a new method of separating valuable materials from waste happens…it really is magic at one level, but basic science at another!

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