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Mike Foulkes in the lab
Dr Mike Foulkes CChem MRSC

A vocational route through his chemistry career led Mike to becoming a lecturer and admissions tutor at the University of Plymouth.

Having enjoyed practical science at an early age, Mike progressed from at-home electrolysis experiments in his early teens to a lab career as a senior research investigator. A willingness to learn from his mistakes and a capacity for experiential learning took him on a vocational route through college and university up to PhD level. He is now associate professor of environmental analytical chemistry, and admissions tutor, at the Plymouth University.

Early inspirations

In the mid-50s, Mike was born into a time that saw a real expansion in the availability and communication of scientific information. He found science fascinating and was enchanted by the world of science fiction in films. His childhood interest never waned and led to an even more eclectic love of sci-fi, and a true passion for science in his adult life - as his wife will confirm!

It wasn’t just the stuff of movies that captured Mike’s interest in his younger years – he was also greatly influenced by his secondary school chemistry teacher. “She was definitely an old-fashioned ‘chalk and talk’ teacher but something about the way she spoke clicked with me. She explained chemistry in a way that made sense and it gave me a real confidence in studying science.”

Chemistry at home

Mike’s love for practical science began at a young age: “I used to try experiments in my bedroom” Mike explains, “I once did an electrolysis experiment with a 12 volt transformer from a Scalextric set, a copper pipe from the garage and brine solution. It worked - I gassed out the whole top floor of our house with chlorine!”

The road less travelled

Mike Foulkes

Despite a natural ability in, and curiosity for, practical science, Mike initially struggled with the academic rigours of studying chemistry.

“I took A-level chemistry in one year, but I only left school with an E grade in A-level chemistry and an AS-level in maths.”

He chose to take a vocational route into his chemistry career by working his way up from junior technician to research investigator, finally becoming senior research investigator in a Cookson Group lab run by Walter Davis. 

After helping to run a characterisation lab at Cookson and after some 13 years in industry, Mike left and went on to achieve his PhD with Professor Les Ebdon at the University of Plymouth. He chose to remain at Plymouth for his post-doctoral studies and subsequently gained a lectureship, tenure and permanent teaching position there. Alongside his role as a laboratory technician, Mike chose the part-time day-release educational route, studying chemistry at Harrow Technological College and gained a higher national certificate. He then completed a graduate scheme founded by the then Royal Institute of Chemistry, at the University of Hertfordshire.

A career in chemistry

Mike describes his position as a lecturer and admissions tutor at the University of Plymouth as “teaching, training, research and consultancy.” He has always loved teaching science, having taken on teaching roles throughout his PhD and postdoc, and “enjoys the buzz of chatting to budding chemists.” For those considering a career in chemistry, he encourages students to ensure that they have “a whole range of skills, as it makes them employable.”

Recognising the value of a science degree, he enthuses about the job possibilities that are available and encourages all, women and men, who are considering a career in science:

“You can go into many different careers: industry, science communication and journalism, research, teaching. Women shouldn’t feel disadvantaged in a science job. I know many women in high profile science roles and have seen from experience that women make great analytical scientists. If you’re good at chemistry, it shouldn’t matter if you are male or female.”

Final advice

Reflecting on Mike’s own journey, and the progression he has made throughout his career, it seems only fitting that his advice to others is to “get on the ladder, take apprenticeships, internships and part-time jobs, and never underestimate the value of any experiential learning.” He underlines these instructions with his strong belief in the importance of science that is both practical and applicable:

“There is a need for practical chemists to tackle global challenges in food, water and energy. We have to think both practically and sustainably. And we need practical people, people who think smart. They are the problem-solvers.”

Words by Vicki Davison
Images courtesy of Mike Foulkes
Published December 2014

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