SCI is pleased to announce that its Electrochemical Technology Group will present this year's Castner Medal to Prof David Williams at Electrochem 2015 in September. Read the interview with Prof Williams below.
What sparked your interest in science?
When I was 10 years old, we moved house and I met a boy who lived up the street who had a wonderful chemistry set. It was an eye-opener. I learnt that, at that time, small boys could go to the pharmacist or local grocery store and buy things like sulphur, Conde’s Crystals (potassium permanganate) or Spirits of Salts (conc hydrochloric acid!) that had very interesting properties. The transformations were just fascinating - smells, bangs, colours and fizzing. I was just hooked and wanted to learn what was behind all this. Then, at high school, I was really fortunate in having chemistry and physics teachers who let me have the run of the laboratory after school hours and who guided and encouraged my curiosity.
...and in electrochemical technology?
That came at university in Auckland – an inspirational teacher, Graham Wright, whose students now lead electrochemistry labs all around the world.
What keeps you interested?
I have fun all the time in my work. I enjoy seeing aspects of my work turn into products that are useful and helpful – that people want to make and buy. I enjoy the constant intellectual challenge and I enjoy having ideas and seeing them through to a finished piece of work.
What do you think are the main challenges in this area?
Electrochemistry is everywhere and there is no lack of big questions to tackle, from energy storage and supply, through to questions about energy transduction in living systems. Electrochemical materials science is one example – eg. finding electrocatalysts that are stable under highly oxidising conditions.
If you had not pursued a career in this field, what would you have done?
What has been the highlight of your career to date?
Seeing my work on chemical sensors go all the way from basic science to successful commercial products, and being able to jump between academia and industry to achieve this.
Would you have done anything differently?
I’ve had a lot of failures along the way and wandered down a few byways, but in the end I think that I learned from these.
What advice would you give to someone at the start of their career to achieve a similar level of success as you?
Be thoroughly grounded in the basics so you can build up an understanding of a new area from first principles, and be open-minded: when opportunity knocks it might be wearing shabby jeans and a grubby tee-shirt. And, obviously, you have to be prepared to work pretty hard and grind through the boring stuff when you need to, and learn when to stop and try something different.
What is your next goal?
I have a couple of projects that I would like to see come through to a commercial reality: dense networks of low-cost air quality instruments; and devices to measure markers in milk, from every cow on a farm at every milking, to improve animal management and well-being. I also have a really fun collaboration trying to build functional nanostructures using proteins as the building blocks: seeing a way through to some neat device would be a real blast.
You have been invited to deliver SCI's Castner Medal lecture at Electrochem 2015. What can attendees expect from your lecture?
I hope, a sense of great fun doing good science that has application.