Finding the right formula
3 May 2012
Reporter meets Professor Richard Craster, Head of the Department of Mathematics, who first started at the College as a maths undergraduate in 1986, to find out how he has found his first six months in post and his plans for the Department.
What are your aims for the Department?
I think they are the aims of any Head of Department, which is to have world class research and high quality teaching within the Department. In addition I want to there to be more of an emphasis on transferable skills for students, as well as try to build a greater sense of community within the Department. No matter what the external factors are, with financial constraints and other worries, internally we need to focus on it being a really great place to work.
How are you going to go about achieving that?
I want to put on more events both for staff and students, and for the Department to be more socially proactive. There are the challenges of being a city centre campus to overcome, with some people living far away and so many other nearby distractions, but we want to give staff and students a reason to hang around the Department a bit more often. It can be something as simple as pastries and coffee at Wednesday afternoon meetings, although I’m under no illusions we’re going to turn the Huxley Building in to a party palace!
What advice would you have for any early-career scientists?
Everyone always assumes that if you’ve had a ‘successful’ scientific career, then it must have been planned, and that you became a professor as a result of a series of mapped out steps taken since you were sixteen. But in my experience, it doesn’t work like that. I got into science, and maths in particular, because I found the subjects easy and fascinating. And so I think for so long as postdocs find the work challenging, fun and exciting, they should follow that path and it could eventually lead to a career. In my case it was a filtering process, rather than some pre-planned deterministic path.
What are you excited about in the Department?
Since October we have made several new appointments. It is exciting to see a place grow. By strengthening research areas, such as mathematical biology, dynamical systems and mathematical finance, it’s becoming an even more interesting place in which to work. It’s also good to see people successfully winning research grants. Even though the headline message from research funders is that money is limited, the Department is winning grants at every panel meeting and a steady stream of successful Fellowships. I’m personally excited that we have won funding from the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council for a research project on which I’m a co-investigator with Dr Greg Pavliotis and Professor Andrew Parry from this Department. It aims to predict how waves reflect off designed structured surfaces and how they change when they encounter a micro-patterned surface. We all have really different backgrounds and the funding will force us to work together in new ways.
How has the College changed since you first joined?
I was an undergraduate between 1986 and 1989 and then returned as an EPSRC Advanced Fellow and a lecturer in 1998, so really I’ve seen it in two incarnations. The first time around, Imperial was part of the University of London and the College was primarily based on the South Kensington Campus. Whilst its physical space hasn’t grown since then, the number of people has. Then, there were only 70 undergraduates in my year, whereas now there are 200 students in each year. Today, as an academic, there are many more pressures than there used to be – you must be a fantastic teacher, administrator and bring in grant income, as well as do top-quality research: which is actually hard to do well and to do simultaneously. The public perception of an academic loafing around with lots of spare time is very wide of the mark!
What continues to excite you about maths?
As a child I always thought it almost magical that maths coupled with physics could explain such seemingly simple, but real, things like rockets, projectiles and orbiting planets, and that you can use it to predict how they would move. That magical feeling about getting equations to interpret or explain real processes has never gone away.
— Simon Levey, Communications and Development