Prof William Kerr on his journey from the park to the lab
12 July 2012
What does your current job involve?
I work as a professor within the Department of Pure and Applied Chemistry at the University of Strathclyde and I was appointed to the endowed 1919 Chair of Organic Chemistry in 2011. I'm responsible for a research team of ten PhD students and three Postdoctoral Associates.
I'm also Director of the University of Strathclyde and GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) Collaborative MPhil and PhD Programme and Doctoral Training Centre in Synthetic and Medicinal Chemistry. With my GSK Co-Director, Dr Harry Kelly, and a team of Strathclyde academic colleagues as research supervisors, we're responsible for 42 research students with this number growing to almost 60 by 2013. Along with my lecturing and tutoring duties and university-level administrative roles, this all makes for a very fulfilling position.
Did you have an interest in science from childhood?
Despite my parents providing all that they could to support and nurture me through my early years, scientific interests were not high on our domestic agenda. Whatever money was available would be spent on football boots for my brother and I rather than on a chemistry set. Accordingly, it was not until I encountered a rather flamboyant chemistry teacher at secondary school, that my mind was opened to the wonders of chemistry.
How did you decide that you wanted a career in science?
Academically, chemistry was always where my main interests lay. However, it was my mother Jean and school friend Kenny McDowall who persuaded me to pursue undergraduate studies. Despite my initial resistance, it was clear my mother had worked extremely hard to provide the opportunities, which she hoped would lead to me becoming the first person from our family to attend university.
Football was my other passion; here McDowall simply and somewhat bravely convinced me that my talents on a football field were perhaps somewhere behind my potential as a chemist - the actions of a true friend! As it turns out, McDowall was an excellent footballer and, after a fine career as a player and coach (latterly at Glasgow Celtic), he is now the first team coach at Glasgow Rangers.
Accepting an offer from the University of Strathclyde then turned out to be a landmark decision. The academic and practical training and, at least as importantly, personal guidance offered within this institution, seemed tuned to support students of all backgrounds, allowing me to progress through my undergraduate studies and instilling the true drive for my ultimate scientific career.
What motivated you to pursue postgraduate studies?
During my final undergraduate year I was engaged in two research projects in organic chemistry and analytical chemistry. Both were immensely enjoyable experiences.
Whilst I had never believed that postgraduate research opportunities would be open to me, these small research engagements led to the offer of PhD positions, creating the not inconsiderable dilemma of which area to go with. Ultimately, and whilst I had the most positive experiences in analytical chemistry with Professor David Littlejohn (now a valued colleague at Strathclyde), I ended up letting my heart lead me into organic chemistry for a PhD with Dr David Billington and Professor Peter Pauson.
What are the most important things you've learned in your career so far?
Whilst many aspects of an academic position can be attractive and, in some ways, distracting, I have learned that focus, energy, and absolute dedication to one's research area is constantly required. Provision of holistic postgraduate training is also of paramount importance. This should be coupled with the teaching and nurturing of undergraduates to the best of one's ability - after all, this group should be considered as the up-and-coming youth team.
What would you say have been the key milestones in your career?
In addition to my PhD supervision, engaging with two other gifted mentors, Myron Rosenblum and Steve Ley, through postdoctoral studies at Brandeis University and Imperial College, respectively, as well as with their extremely talented research teams, provided significant scientific enlightenment, without which I would not have had the personal and scientific insight to initiate my independent career. In turn, on returning to Strathclyde, a continuing team of talented research students and collaborators have dedicated themselves to delivering what has amounted to my career. Oh yes, and meeting my wife through chemistry!