Why do researchers do their research and how did they arrive at their academic niche? As part of our ‘Featured Authors’ series, we previously spoke with Alison Heard from the University of Calgary who discussed her paper as well as the challenges faced throughout the entire research, writing and publishing process.
As a speaker at the University of Oxford’s Curo-Pi3 conference in 2018, we interviewed Professor Rik Tykwinski. He shared his insights into what young academics and PhDs should do when attending academic conferences, what academics get up to when they attend international conferences, and how simple curiosity can be the driving force behind academic research.
Professor Rik Tykwinski, from the University of Alberta, was a speaker at the University Of Oxford’s Curo-Pi3 Conference (2018).
So before we get into the conference and the research that you presented at the conference, could you tell us a little bit about yourself and your academic career so far?
I’ve been a professor for a little bit more than twenty years — split between the University of Alberta where I am now, and Erlangen in Germany. For pretty much the entire time, I’ve worked along with my research group on what we call physical organic chemistry, which is just a fancy way of saying that we’re interested in how a structure of a molecule affects its properties.
You’ve been working on these molecules and looking at their properties and structures for a very long time now, so if we take a step back to maybe the beginning of your academic career, what motivated you to look at this specific research in the first place?
The best answer is curiosity, but the origin of the project is actually kind of ironic in the sense that when I was very young as an assistant professor I was teaching what we call sophomore organic. It’s the first organic course that students take when they come to university. If you go to pretty much any textbook that one would use for our sophomore organic, you will find great descriptions of diamonds and Sp3 carbon and descriptions of graphite, graphene, fullerene and nanotubes and you can see just how wonderful they are, but that’s where it ends. So, the initial motivation was answering this question in a general organic textbook.
Conferences are an important part of any academic’s career, so just how influential have conferences been to yourself and your own academic development?
Instead of saying influential, I would say motivational, and in two ways. If one just sits in their own labs and in their own office, it’s still your chemistry, but it’s only when you go out and find out that other people are interested in what we’re doing it really motivates you.
So, you can know that what I’m doing does have an impact and people are interested to see what we’re doing. This is even more important for new students. As a PhD student you’re typically focused on an endpoint - I need to make these molecules, so I can get my PhD and I can get out of here. Then they go to a conference and other students and postdocs and professors engage them and start talking to them about their molecules and tell them that ‘I saw your paper.’
So for a PhD student, to have a professor from halfway around the world know about their research is incredibly motivating and they often get good ideas from experts in that field. They’ll come back from a conference with a whole list of things, ‘we should do it like this’, ‘we should do that’. We can’t do everything, but the motivational aspect is absolutely fantastic.
I really like this idea of motivation being a key aspect to take away from conferences. So, for any PhD or young academic who are attending their first conferences, do you have any advice for them? So they, like yourself, can learn, talk and return with more motivation than they had before they arrived?
To make the most of it. To talk to people. When you recognise a professor that comes up to your poster and there are that awkward three seconds of silence when they don’t say anything and you don’t say anything, find something to say. As simple as, ‘can I tell you something about my poster’, ‘would you let me tell you something about my poster.’ Often that’s all it takes.
Sometimes they’re just looking but often they’ll say ‘I’ve seen this structure before’ and that’s the beginning of a conversation that might last one minute, it might last ten minutes. But if you engage with that person, it might be the person that you go on to do your postdoc with. You’ll leave the conference, you’ll be on the bus and sitting next to this person and you already have this beginning of a rapport with them and you never know where it may lead. So don’t just sit there and watch and be shy. I’m not a naturally outgoing person so it’s hard for me to engage with somebody just out of the blue. But find a way to do it, get your suitcase of courage and find a way to do it.
So molecules and chemistry have advanced a lot over the last ten years, but have conferences changed in the last ten, twenty and possibly even thirty years?
Some have. I mean there are a lot of conferences that are now organized commercially. So the idea of the conference is to make money for some company, and a fair number of people will go to these because they have a beautiful venue or there is a particular set of speakers, so the conferences are organised to draw people there. That’s a change that you wouldn’t have seen twenty years ago.
I think what’s happened is people are drawn, and more so recently, to smaller conferences, much like CURO-Pi3. Harry said that they were about one hundred and forty people that attended this conference. Researchers want to go somewhere where you don’t have to choose between what session you go to or what people to listen to, as you might have to choose if they’re on at a similar time. With smaller conferences, there is only one talk at any given time, and you can just sit, listen, think, and then interact and actually participate with everybody at the conference. You’re not just there as a spectator, you’re there to participate and you’re welcomed into it because it’s a small group of people.
So these smaller conferences contain a smaller amount of people, but the subject is full of experts in a very niche area?
As you say, it might be or it might be a way for a person to find or change their research direction. So for the project at CURO-Pi3, we hadn’t really worked in that particular area for about ten years, so I saw CURO-Pi3 as a way to enter back into this curved conjugated molecule community.
It may not be my area of expertise or somebody's area of expertise at any given time, but it’s a great way to jump into the area and say ‘yeah here I am, here’s what I’m doing, do you like it?’
With conferences being global and having travelled from the University of Alberta to the University of Oxford I guess you’ve been to many other cities. How much time do you get to explore the city that the conference is hosted in?
Sometimes a reasonable amount, if I have a friend or a particular place or somebody, will actually organise a field trip or something to see a landmark in a city. But probably the worst kept secret of conferences is that most professors, as they run out of time trying to balance out their work and their families, spend an unfortunate amount of time in their hotel room trying to get their talk ready for the presentation the next day.
Often that means we miss out because we’ve got things to do and if it’s a nice quiet hotel room we can get things done, and so sometimes we don’t see anything. But it’s a choice, it’s a choice that we make because as a group were quite motivated to succeed.
We take that free time, if you will, in which nobody is asking us for anything. Often we don’t have a telephone ringing or emails, and we take the time to think about our research, and sometimes we miss some of the local offerings. Although, invariably, we end up walking around in the evening for dinner and if we do find a nice pub or a nice bar somewhere, that’s often our exposure to the local culture.
You have had a very very successful academic career, do you have any advice or tips or tricks for any PhD students or young academics to increase their productivity?
I wish there were. Don’t increase efficiency too quickly, because what happened to me, as I became so efficient in my early career, I was running at about a hundred percent and then I had children. Because I was so efficient, there was no room for increasing efficiency at the time that I wanted to dedicate to my kids so I had to simply take from somewhere else.
So just keep a perspective. Efficiency and productivity is not always the best thing, so try to balance it. I love biking and I love mountain biking, so I make an effort almost every day to commute into work or to have fun and to not forget that there are other things besides my research - especially my family.
Family should always come first, don’t give that up. At the end of the day, another Angewandte paper is far less important than a parent-teacher conference or watching your kid’s first violin recital, no matter how painful it might be.
In your introduction, you said that you have been a professor for twenty years now. You’ve supervised many PhD students and you’ve seen many young academics begin their careers. So what would be your one piece of advice to somebody starting their PhD or for somebody who is just beginning their academic career?
For a PhD student, it sounds kind of cliché, but make sure you love your project, make it your project. If you’re just doing it because somebody told you that you need to do it, or if someone told you that this is the best way to get a job and you’re not excited about the question you’re asking, then you’re really missing out on an opportunity to make something yours. By the time you’ve done your PhD research, you should be the world’s expert on it, and it should be yours. You should be able to sit back and say, ‘look at what I’ve done, that’s really cool, I’m really proud’.
The same thing for an academic. You are starting out and by that time you have probably identified what it is that you love, so now it’s your students. Recognising that all students don’t immediately share your enthusiasm, your motivation or your dedication, so show them that this is the way to do it. Encourage them, realise that they’re all different, find out how to motivate each one individually. If you can do that, even with your first couple of students, then that will lead to a great career.