Oral history of British science

Higgins, Julia (Part 8 of 9). An Oral History of British Science.

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  • Subjects

    Materials Science; Scientific Instruments

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  • Recording locations

    The British Library

  • Interviewees

    Higgins, Julia, 1942- (speaker, female)

  • Interviewers

    Lean, Thomas (speaker, male)

  • Abstract

    Part 8: Comments on benefits of working in France: learning French, anecdote about arriving in France with little French, difference in language use in Paris and Grenoble, anecdote about getting angry on the telephone in French; learning about different types of neutron scattering and technical language; changes in her dress and cooking style. [05:00] Remarks on: social life in France, expatriate communities and families. [06:20] Remarks on international community at Grenoble and national styles of science: French pursuing work to confirm theory; British empiricism; Germans designing experiments slightly differently; national characteristics; ripples of Ted Heath's joining European project, cancellation of British hi-flux reactor. [10:25] Discussion about Grenoble laboratory: politicised nuclear reactor technicians; technically skilled instrument makers; scientists all called physicists and mainly on short term contracts as director Maier Leibnitz wanted to attract ambitious young scientists; support staff; interactions with support staff, such as computing people; shortcomings and use of computing facilities, taking photographs to record computer results; description of using neutron scattering equipment, physically reconfiguring large equipment; [15:45] consequences of limited access to computer data; flat organisations structures, multiple directors; procedures for working with visiting scientists, just as Bob Ullman; high degree of freedom given to scientists. [19:30] Remarks on: enjoyments, science, new experiments, international contacts, having access to best machines in world for work; negative aspects of work, climbing around machines at night, frustrating computing facilities, not wanting to stay permanently as she wanted to do research rather than develop techniques. [21:35] Remarks on self at end of time in Grenoble: appearance, dress; anecdote about bruises from skiing; speaking French with classic English accent; generous salary and allowance; anecdote about buying a Renault 5, driving; mainly British friends, such as Jenny and Bill Stirling. [26:30] Story about refusing a permanent science position in Grenoble as she thought it was time to move on, didn't want to become a techniques expert and wanted to return to a career in a research university in Britain. [29:35] Remarks on: partner George Stirling, met though neutron scattering at Harwell and Grenoble; features of having a partner working in the same field; returning to UK to work with Geoffrey Allen, who was building a team at Imperial College; anecdote about non-interview at Imperial. [32:50] Remarks on returning to England: economic troubles; finding a home; getting used to working in chemical engineering; building a research group; finding it lonely at first; few women on staff at Imperial; early teaching experiences, utilitarian approach to science of engineers; expansion of teaching load. [38:10] Remarks on: teaching at Imperial, limited teaching at first; anecdote about numerical analysis tutorials; Geoffrey Allen move to SRC changing working environment, inheriting interest in mixtures of polymers. Story about JH attending Gordon Research Conference instead of Geoffrey Allen, knowing little about topic at the time, anecdote about Sonja Kraus pointing out a mistake JH made. [43:30] Comments on teaching: training for teaching and learning to teach; later involvement with first year course that taught students to apply knowledge to real problems; length of time taken for teaching preparation and administration; [48:37] interaction with students; enjoyment in teaching; anecdote about paying for research in teaching. [50:40] Comments on building a research group: composition of a research group, PhD students and post-docs; first PhD student Karen Bollins, later Karen Mar, and first post-doc Kay Nicholson; story about travelling around USA to a conference with Kay Nicholson, anecdote about getting lost in a dangerous part of Washington; [56:15] Kay Nicholson's subsequent career, return to work, with Barbara Gabrys, after child through a Daphne Jackson fellowship, death; Imperial college training academics for Chulalongkorn University, Thailand; keeping in touch with former students; nurturing PhD students, anecdote about Karen Bollins’ smart response to a question by Anthony Pearson; [1:01:05] nurturing post-docs; [Closed between 01:01:32 - 1:02:54, 1:03:49]; story about a problematic South American PhD student. [1:04:10] Remarks on research at Imperial: continuing work on quasi-elastic scattering with Kay Nicholson; working on polymer mixtures, watching processes as they happened using scattering; working on ionomers, polymers with salt groups; working with outsider groups such as Dennis Peiffer of Exxon, Bill McKnight of University of Massachusetts, John Dawkins of Loughborough University, ring polymer work with York university. [1:09:05] Remarks on collaboration with Exxon: first contract at conference in USA where she met Dennis Peiffer; working arrangements; arranging a CASE studentship with research council; anecdote about being told off for recruiting Ann Pedley from the chemistry department; outputs. [1:13:15] Remarks on: small number of women students and staff in Imperial when she started; JH doubling number of female professors in 1989; numbers of female students; relations with other women scientists at Gordon conferences; experimental officer Ann Maconnachie; reasons for recruiting PhD students from physicists. [1:18:05] Description of a typical day in Imperial in 1980s: lectures, tutorials, group meetings, varied teaching at different times of year, growth of admin and other responsibilities; visits to Grenoble; difficult period in 1980s without post-docs to help run group. [21:00] Remarks on: change in student to staff ratio, change in course length and funding, staff numbers declining; tight university funding in 1980s, compared to benefits of 1990s increase in funding; writing research proposals, missing funding in 1980s; personal experiences of being on a funding panel; publishing, need to be self driven, JH wanting to finish papers to complete work. [27:00] Remarks on Imperial: a tough place to work at first, but became friendlier; anecdote about rector Ron Oxburgh calling Imperial a 'shirtsleeve university'; small administration and limited interaction between departments at first; organisation between City and Guilds College, Royal School of Mines; JH becoming dean of engineering at City and Guilds c1991; roles of dean; reasons for proliferation of middle management; rector Richard Sykes forming faculties c2001; JH increased involvement with machinery of college as she becoming college tutor and dean. [1:34:25] Remarks on changing activities: longer hours at end of time at Imperial; JH joining science advisory committee planning a UK neutron source; involvement with SERC committees; JH involvement with Morton-Hampstead polymer conference and chairing polymer's committee of SERC putting her at the heart of polymer research; doing less practical work herself and relying more on post-docs; missing analysis of results; changing position of polymer science as a scientific field, and of JH within it.

  • Description

    Interview with polymer scientist and physicist Professor Dame Julia Higgins

  • Related transcripts

    Professor Dame Julia Higgins interviewed by Dr Thomas Lean: full transcript of the interview

  • Related links

    Visit this interviewee's page on the 'Voices of Science' web resource

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