Prof Clive Thompson on climbing the career ladder

15 Feb 2012

We talk to SCI Trustee Prof Clive Thompson about his career and how he got to his current position as chief scientist at ALcontrol Laboratories, UK

What does your current job involve?
I am charged with the development of an integrated overall scientific development programme for ALcontrol. Alongside that, I find and develop new business opportunities, liaise with clients with regard to scientific back-up, special projects and other key issues, including emergency incident issues.

I carry out consultancy work and represent ALcontrol on various national and international committees, including BSi, CEN and ISO.

I also used to have responsibility for running the LEAP (Laboratory Environmental Analysis Proficiency) Testing Schemes for potable water; effluents; emergency incidents; contaminated land; bacteriological and Cryptosporidium, for 15 years before they were sold to CSL (now Food and Environment Agency - Fera). Even now, I still act as an adviser to Fera for the LEAP Scheme.

Did you have an interest in science from childhood?
Very much so. At 12, I had a really inspirational chemistry master, I never ever considered a career in any other discipline.

How did you decide that you wanted a career in science?
In 1957, the practical aspects of chemistry really attracted me to the subject. We had a shed converted into a laboratory in our back garden. I dread to think what the 2011 health and safety authorities would do if they came across an equivalent laboratory now. The local chemist sold me virtually any chemical that I requested. This would not happen now.

What motivated you to pursue postgraduate studies?
The love of research and publishing papers in new areas of analytical science.

What has your experience ascending the career ladder been like?
I have been really fortunate in my career, which has been more like a hobby. I started out as a university lecturer at Imperial College. I then spent six years designing and marketing atomic spectroscopic equipment for Shandon Southern Instruments.

I worked for five years at Severn Trent Water as a deputy laboratory manager at its Malvern Regional laboratory and I've been with my present employer since 1980; initially in sewage works treatment optimisation, then as a laboratory manager for 15 years, before becoming chief scientist.

I've served on numerous committees, and presented lectures at many national and international conferences. In later years I've been involved in organising many such events. Also, for the last 30 years I've been actively involved in BSI/ CEN and ISO standardisation work as well as Standing Committee of Analysts (SCA) work.

What are the most important things you've learned in your career so far?
Firstly, one never stops learning. In fact the older one gets, the more one realises how much there is that you do not know. It is important to keep updating and expanding one's CPD. Secondly, gain the respect of your staff and do all you can to aid their development.

Thirdly, build up a wide network of useful contacts. If a client asks me a question that I am unable to answer, somebody in my network of contacts will almost always be able to help. This also means that one must also promptly respond to queries from network colleagues whenever possible.

What would you have done differently?
I would have started studying biological and microbiological sciences whilst still at school, not in evening classes with a full-time job.

What would you say have been the key milestones in your career?
The development of a number of atomic spectroscopic techniques, associated instrumentation and some patents; helping to organise a large number of successful international conferences covering a wide range of topics; and developing an ecotoxicology laboratory. I've also gained Fellowship status in RSC, CIWEM and RSPH and was recipient of the 2003 SCI Environmental Medal for distinguished and sustained achievement in the areas of preservation, improvement of understanding the environment.

I was awarded the Distinguished Service Certificate from British Standards in appreciation of long and valued contributions to the development of British, European and International Standards, as well as assisting in the development of the Open University Foundation Degree in Analytical Sciences. This apprenticeship type qualification effectively brings back HNC/HNDs in analytical chemistry and microbiology. If you want a job done well in a laboratory, 'ask an HNC/HND'.

What key things would a young person need to do if they wanted to get to the position you've achieved thus far?
Have a thirst for knowledge and never rest on their laurels; show respect for all colleagues, persuade their employer of the various benefits of serving on relevant committees; and finally: work hard.

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