Dr Michael Cowley MRSC
Winner: 2022 Dalton Division mid-career Award:
Sir Geoffrey Wilkinson Award
The University of Edinburgh
For advances in reactivity of and catalysis of aluminium compounds.
Celebrate Dr Michael Cowley
Dr Cowley is interested in developing new chemical compounds and new reactivity of some of the most abundant elements available on earth. Aluminium – which his group studies – is one such element. It’s the most abundant metal in the crust of our planet, and the only part accessible to us. His group studies the fundamental chemistry of aluminium to develop new types of chemical compounds, and new types of reactions. By putting aluminium atoms in their compounds into 'uncomfortable' bonding situations with the atoms that surround them, they can make the metal react in new, unusual, and potentially useful ways.
The group believes that the knowledge they generate and discover about the chemistry of aluminium and other abundant elements will eventually allow us to make the chemicals we rely on in our everyday lives – like drugs, plastics, electronic displays, and other technology – in a sustainable way.
Dr Michael Cowley was born and grew up in West Sussex. A bit later he did his undergraduate degree in chemistry at the University of York (UK). He then spent time working as an ERASMUS student at the University of Helsinki. After that, he started his PhD, in 2004, working with Dr Jason Lynam in York. He studied mechanistic and supramolecular organometallic chemistry. Postdoctoral research at York followed, working with Simon Duckett on novel hyperpolarisation techniques for NMR spectroscopy.
In 2010, Dr Cowley moved to work in the group of David Scheschkewitz, first at Imperial College, and then later at the Universität des Saarlandes, in Saarland, Germany, as a Marie Curie Fellow. He learnt a lot about silicon chemistry and his exposure to the world of main-group chemistry reminded him how much he enjoyed synthetic chemistry. He decided to make main-group chemistry the focus of his own independent research programme.
Dr Cowley was appointed Chancellor’s Fellow at the School of Chemistry at the University of Edinburgh in 2013. In 2016, he was awarded an ERC Starting Grant and, in 2019, was promoted to Senior Lecturer.
His research interest is exploratory synthetic chemistry: the development and/or discovery of new types of compounds and new types of reactions or reactivity. He prefers to start from a basic scientific question rather than aiming to provide immediate solutions to current technological problems.
Who or what has inspired you?
A lot of people and things. First, and most of all, my parents, grandparents, and my wife Áine. After that, the people I work with. I was lucky earlier in my career to work with great scientists, as a PhD student and postdoc, (Dr Jason Lynam, Professor Simon Duckett, and then Professor David Scheschkewitz). Nowadays I am inspired by the amazing early career scientists in my own research group whose ambition, creativity and curiosity really push me along.
I also take a lot of inspiration from reading about the scientists of the past (especially Humboldt, Darwin, and Davy). Finally, music. Scientists should be aiming to change how people think about a thing, but we do it to fewer people and more long-windedly than musicians, who know how to change how 5,000 people in a room are thinking or feeling in just a few minutes. I think that’s amazing.
What motivates you?
Two things. First, I want to create and discover new things that didn’t exist or weren’t known before. Being then able to share that with other people, aiming to change how they think about something or other, is exciting. Secondly, I get a lot of satisfaction from seeing students and postdocs that I work with develop as scientists during their time in the group.
What advice would you give to a young person considering a career in chemistry?
Firstly, always add the water to the acid. (Or is it the other way around?) Secondly ... find a question or a problem that you are interested in and care about. Work out what the best environment is first to learn the skills you need to tackle it. Then find the best kind of place in which to solve it. Then work out how to get there. You should be ready to go and do it now. Remember to have fun. But also ... don’t listen too hard to advice. Other people are often wrong (see above), or just different from you. You’re probably just going to have to work it out for yourself.
Can you tell us about a scientific development on the horizon that you are excited about?
I would be excited to see the application of the scientific method to the resource allocation problem of allocating grant funding.
Why is chemistry important?
All knowledge is inherently valuable, and studying chemistry generates new knowledge.
What has been a highlight for you (either personally or in your career)?
My highlight is generally the latest exciting result, or next tantalising hint of one, coming from my research group.
What has been a challenge for you (either personally or in your career)?
I love learning and knowledge but I’ve never found that I function as well as the people around me appear to in places like schools, colleges, or universities. That can make being part of one – and the greater scientific ‘ecosystem’ – a bit of a struggle. So, my biggest challenge is managing the mutual expectations and interface between me and the organisations I’ve been part of so that I can perform to the best of my capabilities.
What does good research culture look like/mean to you?
Systemically, this means providing an environment that is flexible and open enough to support multiple ways of working, ways of thinking, and ways of being. We need to make sure that universities and the scientific ‘ecosystem’ in the UK can and does support all kinds of scientists, and all kinds of science.
Scientifically, it means a culture and an environment where people have scientific freedom to explore what they want, and to change direction where needed, as unpredictable but possibly highly valuable results emerge.
Interpersonally – within a team – it means having a clear, shared vision or goal, and at least some shared values. Every team is different, but I prefer to work in one that is ambitious and seeks performance through openness, trust, and mutual support towards developing one another.
Why do you think teamwork is important in science?
Because different people have different ideas from one another, which come from their different knowledge and experiences. It’s obvious that being part of a team can generate more diverse approaches to answer questions or solve problems. The corollary, of course, is that it’s well known that larger teams are less creative (as well as less efficient) than smaller ones. Even small teams can – if not very carefully managed – constrain creativity when or if group dynamics make it hard for people to come forwards with their ideas, especially if those ideas are different from the norm. There probably must also still be room for people who want to work alone. If we really do believe in having a diverse workforce and culture, then we need to accept that.