Q+A: Professor Graham Leggett, Head of Department

Originally published in Resonance.

Graham LeggettGraham Leggett, Professor of Nanoscale Analytical Science and an academic member of staff in the Department of Chemistry for 16 years, was named Head of Department in August 2018. A well-known name in the field of nanoscience, current and future undergraduates will know him well for his numerous lectures, ranging from the role of fuel in our world to nanochemistry and the science of solid surfaces.

We found some free time amongst the new Head's busy schedule to talk to him about his new role. This interview focuses on Graham's academic career, where he started, and how he found himself at Sheffield, as well as his current plans for leading the Department, plus a few tips on how to relax after a hard day’s work.

Could you give me a brief outline of your academic career up to now?

I completed my degree and PhD at the University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology, which sadly is no more. UMIST has a long history and goes back to the beginning of the 19th century, and is where John Dalton completed his work on atomic theory. I spent some time as a postdoc at the University of Washington in Seattle (Chemical Engineering) and at the University of Nottingham (Pharmacy department).

My first lectureship was in the department of materials engineering at Nottingham, where I had to teach chemistry to engineers – which is about as popular as explaining maths to chemists! The course was on the mechanical behaviour of polymers, quite entertaining and different from what I’ve taught subsequently. I went back to UMIST in 1988 where I was promoted to senior lecturer, and in 2002 I came here to Sheffield – somewhere I love working and living. I’m very proud to have become Head of Department here, and I’m very committed to doing my job well.

In particular, what moments in your career are you most proud of?

Image 1To be honest, I’m not sure. I’ve said to a few people, the things I’m most satisfied with are actually the people I’ve supervised as PhD students and post-docs. It’s quite a close relationship, and seeing them develop, mature, and go on to have bright careers of their own are some of the most satisfying things I’ve done. Academically speaking, there have been a few things!

Some work we’re doing at the moment has taken us in a new direction, which involves gold nanostructures that can couple to proteins involved in photosynthesis. From this, we can attempt to manipulate specific molecules to control this process. Another project I’m quite proud of was developing a parallel near-field lithography device. Near-fields are found close to very small apertures and they don’t undergo diffraction because they are evanescent waves, which is very useful at the nanoscale! We found out how to make tiny structures using these probes about 15 years ago, but we’ve developed a device to do this over a very large area using parallel scanning nearoptical microscopy (SNOM) probes – which we called a SNOMipede!

One of the reasons this was so satisfying is because when we put out an advert for post-docs for this project, I got an email from a guy who worked on the original millipede project at IBM, who had decided back then that what we were trying to do was basically impossible! However, we ended up developing two different functional devices. One of the best things about that project was the amount of people from different universities who came together to work on various aspects of it.

Image 2

Research Focus: The Leggett Group

The Leggett group’s main focusses can be summed up in one word - nanochemistry. Their work studies the structures, properties and reactivity of molecular surfaces on the nanoscale. Their website details two main elements to their research: nanofabrication, the construction of molecular objects smaller than 100 nm and nanotribology, which is the study of sliding contacts between nanoscale objects.

They have found that near-field methods, discussed in Graham’s interview, are fantastic for controlling fabrication, down to tens of nanometres! Their work in nanotribology has discovered a direct link between solution-phase thermodynamics and hydrogen bonding nanoscale molecular contacts.


Do you have any specific plans for the Department and how you’re going to lead it?

That’s a good question, I think one of the things I feel is really great about this department is that everybody is really committed to excellent teaching. Even when we had 200 students in our first year cohort, a number which is very hard work to teach, no one was prepared to compromise. I often think to myself, if my sons were interested in chemistry, I’d be really happy if they came to this department because I think my colleagues really care a lot about the students they teach – unfortunately my sons aren’t that interested in chemistry!

In terms of how I approach leadership, I’ve led a national network on understanding the physics of life, and I’ve found that it’s vitally important to do things as a team. In the department, everybody has a shared understanding of where they want to get to and what the important objectives are and we need to pull together to achieve them.

Aside from that, we’ve been through a process where we have to do a regular research assessment and evaluate a wide range of outputs from the department, including research papers. I’ve led that process because I’ve been director of research for the last few years. From that it’s been very obvious that a lot of great work is done in the department and the chemistry is really strong – but we still want to make it better, something I am absolutely certain we can do because I have so many talented colleagues.

It certainly sounds like you do a lot of work, what kind of activities do you enjoy doing outside of your job?

I like quite a range of music, I like to play and own several guitars with which I can play a variety of styles. In fact, I find music is a fantastic way to relax, because when you’re playing an instrument you’re only focused on the music you’re trying to play, so by necessity everything that’s happened during the day is excluded from your mind. I also quite like cooking, particularly Mexican food. I have quite a collection of dried chillies at home - and the cooking is something my wife particularly enjoys! Unfortunately, I don’t have quite as much spare time as I’d like due to the nature of my job, but music is definitely my main form of relaxation.

Any favourite artists?

Now that is a hard question. I’m a big fan of Richard Thompson, I love playing his music and attempting to sing his songs – despite them not being very cheerful. I love jazz as a genre; my favourite jazz musicians are Keith Garrett, Miles Davis and Thelonious Monk, but Allan Holdsworth is probably my favourite jazz guitarist. The band I’ve been to see most is Hawkwind, but I lost track of how many times I’d been to see them after about the 30th gig!

Finally, thank you for the taking the time to let me interview you, and congratulations on your appointment as head of department. Good luck!

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