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Saiful Islam
Professor Saiful Islam CChem FRSC


Saiful works on clean energy materials and is passionate about promoting diversity and bringing science to people of all backgrounds

Today he’s a professor at the University of Bath, but Saiful didn’t always envisage a career in chemistry. As a schoolboy, he dreamt of becoming a footballer or entering the world of politics, while his parents hoped he might study medicine. “As first generation immigrants, my parents wanted me to be a medical doctor as a secure career. I’m glad I stuck to chemistry, although I did marry a GP,” he says. It was while attending comprehensive school in Haringey that his interest in chemistry was first sparked:

"I didn’t have a chemistry kit at home. I remember being excited about a school project on growing crystals, and also going to the Royal Institution for a fantastic schools lecture on photochemistry by George Porter, a nobel laureate. Until then, I hadn’t realised that you could do chemistry as a full-time job."

Clean energy for the future

After leaving school, Saiful went on to study a degree and a PhD in chemistry at University College London. It was while carrying out his postgraduate research, supervised by Professor Richard Catlow, that Saiful developed his real love of the subject. Saiful describes his experience: “I think my real passion for chemistry came in the second half of my PhD when I started studying the exciting topic of high temperature cuprate superconductors – materials that show zero electrical resistance.”

Having completed his PhD, Saiful travelled to New York to take up an industrial postdoctoral fellowship at Eastman Kodak, where he continued working on superconductors. He returned to the UK when he received a lectureship at the University of Surrey before moving to the University of Bath in 2006, where he currently holds a position as a professor of materials chemistry. His research explores new crystalline compounds with potential applications in solar cells and next generation lithium batteries for electric cars. “I use powerful computer modelling techniques to investigate green energy materials on the atomic scale. My research group are studying how lithium ions move in new battery materials, including iron silicates, which offer the tantalising prospect of cheap, sustainable electrodes from rust and sand,” he explains.

A passion for outreach

Saiful grew up in modest surroundings in north London in the late 1970s. At this time, life wasn’t easy for a young British Asian due to the possibility of racist abuse. Saiful is now an award-winning academic and, having had a humble upbringing himself, he is strongly committed to promoting equality and making science more accessible for people from all backgrounds. He sits on the Diversity Committee of the Royal Society which aims to promote equality across its activities, to raise awareness of unconscious bias and to increase the participation of underrepresented groups in science.

"It’s great to be involved because, as a humanist, I’ve always believed in greater fairness and equality in society in general. It’s important that studying and working in science should be open to everyone. We need to support and encourage people from different backgrounds to take up science."

Saiful is passionate about outreach and public engagement. He has presented Ignite People wearing 3D glasses for Saiful's presentationtalks, spoken at Bath Science Café, presented an exhibit at the Royal Society Summer Science Exhibition and delivered a Royal Society of Chemistry Schools Lecture Series. He is also a regular speaker for The Training Partnership, an educational organisation that provides study days to inspire school students. One of his favourite ways to capture the attention of younger audiences involves using 3D glasses in his presentations. “I have given lectures to more than 3,000 A-level chemistry students using 3D glasses. I enjoy using 3D images to illustrate crystal structures of energy materials; they help to show that chemistry can reveal the intricacy and beauty of matter at the atomic level, which can be as visually aesthetic as the arts,” he says.

Advice to others

Saiful strongly believes that people of all backgrounds can, and should, be involved in science. For those thinking of starting a career in chemistry, he stresses the importance of working hard and having good role models to follow:

"In my talks, I mention that I went to a comprehensive school in Haringey, north London, to give a positive message that science is for everyone. Those wanting a career in science need to put in the hard work but it is important that they are supported too. One factor in my success was having some good mentors along the way."

Words by Jamie Durrani
Images copyright Nic Delves-Broughton/University of Bath
Published December 2015

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