Racing's loss is industry's gain - interview with Alain Phyfferoen

11 Nov 2013

What does your current job involve?
My job is Technical Support and Development Manager, so I support customers, people developing products, our own sales people, and people in our company, on the technical aspects of using our products. For example, how their inclusion might improve an existing formulation or using them in new applications.

And what is that product?
The company I work for, CP Kelco, is a producer and innovator of naturally derived water-soluble polymers. They hydrate in the water, modifying its rheology and the way it flows and therefore find use in many different applications, from food, to oil field drilling, mining, construction, agrochemicals etc; all that is needed is some water somewhere in the formulation. I therefore have an understanding of these applications but have particularly specialised in construction.

Did you have an interest in science from childhood?
I've always liked making and understanding how things work. At secondary school, chemistry was something I quickly latched onto from the moment our chemistry teacher (Mr Clarke - I still remember him!) showed us the first piece of zinc being dropped into an acid to make hydrogen and the subsequent 'bang' he made. I was interested and hence hooked and thankfully, I found chemistry was something I was reasonably good at.

Career-wise I have taken a bit of a convoluted path: Initially I was going to study agriculture and farming, as I'd worked on farms during school holidays and loved the experience. But just before I took my A-levels, I decided that wasn't for me so I got a job at British Gypsum working in their quality control department. They sponsored me to go back to education, where I did chemistry and science-related A-levels and after a while there, I decided I'd go and get a degree. So off I went to Loughborough University.

Like many others, I found university life-changing and my interest in chemistry and science was reinforced. My degree was a sandwich course and I spent a year at Beechams working on scale-up synthesis. That married my interests in chemistry with making things, because we were not only investigating routes to synthesise novel compounds, we were building the reactors to make them in. It was fundamental in getting my degree because it made all the things you learn at university real and make sense: otherwise you can learn things parrot fashion if you're not careful, not necessarily understanding it. I would certainly recommend a sandwich year.

Was that year one of the significant career milestones?
Definitely; in that year I made the connection with what I had studied and understood it all. It allowed me to return to university and really apply myself to get the degree I wanted. That time at Beechams was so valuable. After Loughborough, I did not go directly into chemistry, working for a while at Courtaulds textiles. But I quickly realised I had to go back to doing something technical and even laboratory-based, and that's when I got the position here at CP Kelco. I've done other things in my career, but ultimately I kept coming back to this sort of work.

What are the most important things you've learned so far in your career?
Stay inquisitive. Stay curious. Keep looking, keep learning and keep trying to develop and apply what you learn. This keeps me motivated and if you keep motivated, you'll get the most out of things. It gets me out of bed and it makes me I feel that I'm contributing. When you enjoy what you do, everything falls into place.

How did you first become involved in SCI and what has that involvement meant for you?
I got involved with SCI when I joined CP Kelco. SCI was running courses and seminars relevant to what I was doing and which interested me. So I kept going to more and joined SCI at the same time. Since then, the thing I've liked most about SCI has been C&I magazine, because although I may be working in a slightly focused and narrow field, it keeps me abreast of what else is going on out in the world of science, and more importantly how science is contributing towards business and industry.

If you hadn't pursued a career in science, what would you be doing now?
That is a tough one! I could still have been working at British Gypsum, or I might possibly have gone back into agriculture. But I think that if I hadn't done any of these, I would have loved to have been a motorcycle mechanic with a top race team. Motorcycles are my passion, and I think that would've been a great career - going around the world, making bikes go faster.

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