Interview: Dr Rodney Banks, 2011 Perkin Medallist

23 Nov 2011

Did you have an interest in science from childhood?
Yes, as early as I can remember I was interested in understanding the principles of how things work and how materials are made. I had a natural curiosity about the physical world we live in.

How did you decide you wanted a career in science?
As I progressed through public school, science and math were my favourite subjects and I worked hard to learn all I could. At home I enjoyed experimenting with chemistry and building mechanical devices. My family and teachers encouraged me to follow my aspiration to get into science as a profession. My father was a chemist who inspired me to study chemistry and other sciences.

What motivated you to pursue postgraduate studies?
When I was pursuing a Bachelor's degree at Johns Hopkins, I took the opportunity to work in my advisor's lab with his graduate students in an interesting area in physical chemistry involving electrical conductivity of organic conductors. I worked closely with one graduate student on his thesis research and discovered that I would like to work on a project of my own in graduate school. There was much more to be learned after undergraduate school and postgraduate study was the best opportunity to specialise in an area of particular interest to me which was physical and synthetic.

What has your experience ascending the career ladder been like?
It was many years of hard work but the kind of work that was enjoyable and challenging. Learning was constant. As one ascends the technical ladder, the amount of freedom and independence one earns increases, which allows more time to explore new technologies and develop new ideas. I cannot overemphasise the benefit to me of having independence to innovate and invent.

What are the most important things you've learned in your career so far?
One must truly enjoy and be passionate about one's work almost to an extreme. One must be able to use one's strengths to achieve one's goals and to grow intellectually. Open collaborations and stimulating discussions with colleagues are essential to achieving a meaningful career.

What would you have done differently?
Early on, I found my calling regarding the type of work I really enjoy doing. I stayed on the technical ladder throughout my career and worked hard to get where I am. I can't think of any major change I would have made.

How have you set goals for yourself and managed to achieve them?
I try to set challenging but achievable goals that give me a chance to invent or design a new and innovative technology or product for Nalco. I choose goals that are not only good for Nalco but are of special interest to me to work on. Then I just work hard to finish them and try to get them implemented in the company's products.

What would you say have been the key milestones in your career?
I was fortunate to have been offered, early in my career, the opportunity to develop sensors for Nalco and this field fit naturally into my personal interests of building mechanical devices which use chemistry. Electronic design and testing are a necessary component of sensor development and I learned this area on my own over the years.

What key things would a young person need to do if they wanted to get to the position you've achieved thus far?
A person must demonstrate their importance to the company and make notable contributions in their area of responsibility. This requires that one work diligently and persistently. One must be willing to help fellow colleagues be successful in their areas of work.

How do you achieve work/life balance?
I don't think I do that especially well. My work/life balance is skewed more to the work side since I can't seem to completely let go of thinking about the work I am doing. My wife has helped me be a more well-rounded person.

What's your leadership style? How do you keep a team engaged and motivated?
I encourage people to think for themselves and guide them along the right paths. I do not dictate what people should do but help them figure out their own solutions. I get excited about achieving success and transfer that enthusiasm to others.

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