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Meet Paul Luckham, winner of 2015 Rideal Lecture

Prof Paul Luckham

27 Jan 2015

Prof Paul Luckham of Imperial College has been selected to deliver the 2015 Rideal Lecture, which recognises and honours an individual who has made a sustained and distinguished contribution to colloid and interface science in the UK. Prof Luckham will deliver a lecture on 'The effect polymers have on modifying the properties of surfaces and particles' at the 2015 Rideal Meeting, in London, on 23 April 2015. Here Prof Luckham gives us an insight into his career.

What sparked your interest in science?
As a child I was always interested in nature, indeed I still am. I was into butterflies and moths, birds and reptiles and amphibians which I managed to breed in my bedroom (my mother was very tolerant!). So really I wanted to be another David Attenborough (I am old enough to have seen the old Zoo Quest series on the BBC). I can remember reading the book 'The Year of the Gorilla' by George Schaller I think who was the first person to get gorillas used to humans so that they could be observed (pre Dian Fossey). It was an inspiring book. However academic biology (at school) did not appeal; it seemed that you had to be able to draw well, be neat and tidy and good at spelling. I fail in all of these; whilst chemistry and physics had logic to it; enabling you to work things out, far more rewarding.

...and in colloid and interface science?
I became interested in colloid and interface science as a student in Bristol, which at that time was the home of Colloid Science in the UK. My interest was first sparked by two second year lecture courses: one by Dr Aitkin Cooper, who told us of an experiment on Clapham Common by Benjamin Franklin, who found that a teaspoonful of olive oil when poured onto the surface of the pond damped the waves and eventually spread over an area of half an acre which, when you do the maths, would correspond to a film thickness of around 1 nm; a second lecture by Prof Ron Ottewill explained why rivers form estuaries and deltas when they come into the sea. (The particles aggregate due to a reduction of the electrical double layer caused by the increasing salt concentration).

What keeps you interested?
Research students; the inquisitive mind of young researchers constantly inspires new thoughts and challenges the accepted view. I hope that my experience coupled with their inquisitiveness moves us forward.

What do you think are the main challenges facing scientists working in this area?
This is an interesting question. When I started in this field direct physical testing of theory was lacking, however techniques were just beginning to come on stream like neutron scattering and reflectivity and surface forces experiments which could test current theory, and provided the impetus for theories (particularly in terms of polymers in colloidal systems, or at interfaces) to develop further. At the moment this area has largely reached maturity. Now the challenge is in applying this knowledge in either complex formulations or in new systems. Complex formulations have been made for a long time of course, but now with a good knowledge of how the system is behaving a lot less trial and error is possible. New systems would include stimuli responsive systems, self assembly into complex structures the area of nanotechnology, which is really colloid science anyway! etc.

If you had not pursued a career in this field, what would you have done?
Hard to say, I would really have liked to have had a go at my first scientific love of nature, but as I choose not to do that I guess that shouldn't count. I can remember at school having to fill in an aptitude questionnaire to give you an idea as to which career to choose. My top three were a chemical engineer (I didn't know what that was then!); a metallurgist; or a priest!

What has been the highlight of your career to date?
Again hard to say; my first PhD student getting their PhD; when one of my PhD students who had a severe mental illness passed his PhD would be very high, but probably the highlight would be when I performed an experiment in my early days at Imperial College, using the surface forces apparatus where we squashed two phospholipid bilayers together and visually saw them fuse. You could see a small part of the contact area, not always the middle, but a weak point, would suddenly move together by 3-4 nm as a bilayer was pushed out, this region then grew over around 10 seconds as more and more of the contact area, giving us an insight into how membranes fuse in processes such as phagocytosis, vesicle fusion with cells etc. A wonderfully exciting moment. Then there was the fashion show at Imperial College, somewhat surreal really!

Would you have done anything differently?
Yes loads of small things of course, but nothing major I can think of.

What impact has your involvement with CSCG/CISG (joint SCI/RCS Colloids Group) had on your career?
It's been huge. On and off I have been on the CSCG in various guises for around 25 years I guess. For around the first 15 years or so of my involvement, SCI organised evening lectures in Belgrave Square, where someone would come and give a lecture on a colloid science topic once a month. I would go regularly and meet up with other members of the committee and discuss both the lecture and what we were doing in an informal way. It was a great way of collaborating, both formally and more important informally. I was lucky of course, Belgrave Square is a 15 minute walk from Imperial College but as time progressed people became busier, finding it harder to attend both the committee meetings and the lecture; attendances dropped and so the evening lectures died. The Founders Lecture (which has now been merged with the Rideal Lecture; named after Sir Eric Rideal, the founder of SCI's Colloid and Surface Chemistry group) survived and has now evolved into initially a half day meeting, but now a full day meeting. Looking at the list of lecturers, I, and I am sure future and past recipients, feel very humbled to be placed in the same category as them.

What advice would you give to someone at the start of their careers to achieve a similar level of success as you?
Keep going, do what you want and don't worry about success. If what you are doing is good that will happen.

What is your next goal?
I have been approached to help organise the 3rd UK colloids conference in 2017, so my goal will be to make that a success, both scientifically and financially.

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