#FaradayPathways Alastair Hales, University of Bristol
Alastair made the move from Imperial College London to the University of Bristol recently to take his first academic position as Lecturer and build a research group. In a recent talk to Faraday Institution PhD researchers, he outlined the importance of thinking strategically when taking the step up from post doc positions – taking every opportunity to actively fill in gaps in experience and capabilities, particularly to demonstrate the ability to successfully bring in funding.
Settling in academia
Clearing blocked pipes using large volumes of high-pressure slush puppy may seem a long way from battery research, but Alastair has made a career out of bringing his experience of heat transfer to battery research groups and their industry collaborators. He explains how he got started:
“I completely my PhD with Joe Quarini in the Mechanical Engineering Department at the University of Bristol on ice pigging – a novel way to clear blocked pipes using a salty ice slurry at pressure. The water and waste management utility company Suez bought the patent related to the research so after my PhD I moved to industry with the hope of developing the next generation of that technology. I enjoyed some aspects of the role, but I quickly realised that I was most interested in research and technology development, which was not part of my role at Suez.
“I wanted the freedom to spend more than 10 minutes exploring a new idea. My now wife lived in London, so I began looking for post-doctoral researcher roles in the capital.”
Alastair moved to a one-year post-doc at Queen Mary University London in computational fluid dynamics, applying his skills set in heat transfer to develop connective cooling technology. As that came to an end, he attended an interview with Greg Offer at Imperial that he summarises as follows:
Alastair: “I don’t know anything about batteries.”
Greg: “That’s okay, batteries we can teach you. It’s the heat transfer background we need.”
That was the start of 3 years in Greg’s group at Imperial working on Innovate UK Faraday Battery Challenge projects with Thermal Hazard Technology and separately with Caterpillar and Avid Technologies improving battery thermal management and diagnostics for heavy duty vehicles.
Towards the end of his time at Imperial, Alastair was the main researcher on the TOPBAT Faraday Institution Industry Sprint with AMTE Power (that was investigating if redesigning a cell to optimise for cooling could improve overall battery performance) and spent a small amount of time working on the Multi-scale Modelling project.
The group was then awarded internal Imperial funding via an EPSRC Impact Accelerator Account and Alastair spent five months developing the business model and technology for the spin out that has subsequently become About:Energy. Alastair is a co-founder of the company, which aims to facilitate the use of battery modelling by UK industry, increasing the speed of battery prototype development.
During much of this time he was planning his move to an academic position.
Planning the move
Having made the move recently, what advice would he give to people wanting to take the step up from post doc?
“I’d definitely advise people to take time to make a plan several years before you think you might want to make the move. Tell your supervisor and ask them to help with that planning process.
“Two years before my move I was working actively to fill holes in my CV with new experiences and capabilities. Greg Offer, Yatish Patel and Monica Marinescu were all supportive of me getting involved with writing grant proposals for the Innovate UK projects, the FI sprint, the EPSRC fellowship and a couple of consultancy projects, so I had a lot of exposure to understanding that side of academia. I was growing my links to industry (who provided letters of support during my job application), travelling to China, presenting to heads of R&D there, and growing my network.
“Yes, researchers need to publish papers, and a lot of people focus on this, but from my perspective it’s less important than being able to demonstrate to a university that you’re capable of bringing in funding and delivering projects.”
A strategic move to Bristol
Alastair took a strategic decision that he would have to leave Imperial to secure that all important first academic position as Imperial was already so well served with battery experts. He explains:
“I was basically told as part of the internal vetting for a Royal Academy of Engineering Fellowship I was applying for that my ‘unique selling point’ just wasn’t distinct enough from established battery researchers at Imperial.”
The situation at the University of Bristol was very different. The university was advertising for a Lecturer in Sustainable Electromechanical Systems, as part of the growing Electrical Energy Management Group.
“Greg and Yatish were amazingly supportive of my move. We discussed my interview strategy as I had no research expertise with motors, generators and wind turbines – the advertised core capability of the role – and I needed to play to my strengths. At the time, Bristol had no research capabilities in batteries but it’s obviously a growing research field, and there was enough flexibility in the role that I managed to secure my position here.
“The Faraday Institution was instrumental. Along with Greg Offer, I had applied for a Faraday Institution Industrial Fellowship in collaboration with Thermal Hazard Technology, which I intended to carry out at Imperial. We got the Fellowship offer on a Monday, and then I heard from Bristol on Tuesday that I had an interview with them on Thursday! When I explained the situation to the Faraday Institution, their response was incredible. They were keen to involve other universities in the cohort and suggested I attend the interview for Bristol and explain that I had been awarded a Fellowship. They were willing to adapt to opportunities that arose, which is unlike what you’d expect from most funding bodies. At the start of the interview, I was asked if I had anything I needed to say beforehand, and I was able to mention that I had been awarded an Industrial Fellowship from the Faraday Institution. It set me up for starting research at Bristol right away!”
“Subsequently, the Faraday Institution has provided me with support when I was recruiting my first PhD researcher. Without the connections of the FI I don’t know if I would have been able to fill the position.”
The view from the next rung of the career ladder
“The move from being a well-established post doc to the most junior of colleagues has been a whole new world. Learning about the workings of a university from an inner layer of the “academic onion” is eye opening. Whether it’s building a new undergraduate course on batteries or interactions of students, the buck stops with me. It has been both a shock to the system and highly motivating. Every day brings a new challenge”
And what’s surprised him?
“I was really nervous about my teaching responsibilities. I had taken the opportunity to give a couple of lectures at Imperial, but they were on my research topic, so I felt comfortable doing it. Teaching across a broader range of topics has been incredibly rewarding. It is really motivating to see the detail and precision put in by all my colleagues here to deliver a fantastic learning experience for the students. That is definitely something that you have less exposure to as a post-doc. Equally, I’m surprised at how much time I still have to do research in the lab, and long may that continue!”
And what’s been the hardest thing about the move:
“Having to take step back from About:Energy. I would have loved to be a bigger part of the journey Gavin White and Kieran O’Regan are taking. Stepping back from that opportunity wasn’t an obvious decision at the time, but I’m happy where I am now.”
Connect with Alastair on LinkedIn.
Published March 2023.