Professor Mike Ward has left the University of Sheffield

Head of Department, Professor Mike Ward has left the University of Sheffield to become head of the chemistry department at the University of Warwick.

Mike joined the department back in 2003 after moving to Sheffield from the University of Bristol. He has been the Head of Department for a total of six years, from 2007-2011 when Prof. Richard Jackson took over, and then again from 2015 to 2017.

Mike's final duty as Head of Department was presenting degrees at the graduation ceremony on 20th of July, as well as presenting the department's own awards in our ceremony.

Joe Clarke had the opportunity to talk to Mike about some of his experiences about being Head of Department (HoD) and what lies ahead for him at Warwick.

Mike Ward

Why are you leaving the University?

I was in Bristol for 13 years and now I have been here for 14 years, I feel that it is now time for me to move on and try something different. It (Warwick) has its own challenges which are different for every department. Also, my research will hopefully get a boost. When I moved to Sheffield it was boosted due to the collaborations available, and hope this will also be the case in Warwick.

What is it like being Head of Department?

Busy. It’s a mixture of frustrating and nice. It’s really nice to be able to accomplish great things for the department, like getting people promoted and recruiting new staff.

So, what are some of the challenges you have had to face as HoD?

Well there are two main challenges really. We are in a difficult environment across the whole higher education sector. At the moment, the demographic of 18-year olds is decreasing. There is something like a 15% decline in the number of 18 year-olds who have been applying for universities, which is starting to bite. The advent of tuition fees didn’t immediately put people off attending university, but that could be having an effect now. There has been a serious decline in chemistry UCAS, which all departments are feeling due to the change in A-Level course a few years ago. But once students are used to this, it should see a bit of a revitalisation.

At the same time research grants are becoming harder. The amount of money research councils have has in real terms declined steadily. The current situation is tough too with the applications of grants from EU research grants being uncertain in the future. The environment for generating funding is tougher now than I have ever known it. This is an issue faced by all scientific departments across the country and balancing the economics.

What would you say is your favourite part of being HoD?

My favourite thing is, when the opportunity rises, to do something good.

An example would be, recently we had two senior members of the professorial team leave to take roles at other universities. Prof. Rimmer went to be HoD in Bradford and Prof. Hunter moved to Cambridge. So, we had the opportunity to recruit new staff, and we chose to spend the same budget to recruit a cohort of young academics, Seb Spain, Jonathan Foster, Rob Dawson, Ben Partridge, Adrien Chauvet and Tim Craggs. So, we now have a great selection of young highly talented people. I know it's cliché but they’re the future. It’s great to see them integrate into the community so well.

We’ve also had significant successes obtaining research grants. Be it Julia’s (Weinstein) Laser lab; Steve Armes and Tony Ryan secured the grant for SMALL and the new SAXS machine; and Graham Leggett got the money for a new XPS facility too. But then there was a general departmental grant for an upgrade of core facilities, NMR and Mass Spec upgrades, and an upgrade to the AFM (Atomic-Force Microscopy).

Modernising existing technologies and facilities is significant for research, particularly in physical chemistry, which is largely instrument driven. Equipment and technological advances drives great research, you can now answer questions that weren’t possible previously.

Has it been difficult to manage both HoD duties and responsibilities as a researcher?

Having Liz (Edwards) and Alex (Metherell) to manage my research group has been fantastic. Liz’s expertise and background has meant she has concentrated more on the photophysics and luminescence field. She is independent and has been focused on helping the students working in that field. It can be a bit of a balance but with the right people around you, you can manage it.

What is happening to your research group here?

There will be a bit of a transitional period for about 2 years. It will be more of a slow changeover of phasing down my group here, while building up my group in Warwick. I‘ve got a couple of people staying here, a couple of Ph.D. students will be writing up. There are also three students who are all joint supervised with Julia Weinstein, doing projects in photophysics and luminescence, so they’re staying here since they need the hardware. I’ll be back periodically to check on their progress but Julia will become their supervisor.

My postdoc Alex will coincidently also be leaving to take a job at the RSC publishing, which will be great for him, and Liz is also leaving.

What research will you be continuing at Warwick?

Well there are two strands to my research: Coordination chemistry, cages and host-guest binding; and photophysics and luminescence with applications to cell imaging in collaboration with Julia. To start with I’d rather have a small group working on a common goal, so I’ll be focusing on the cage research, since this has been going quite well.

Mike's official leaving party on 21st of July involved former Head of Department Prof. Tony Ryan, who interviewed Mike when he first joined the department in 2003, offering some words of thanks:

"Sheffield's loss is Warwick's gain. I want to say thank you to Mike for all the service he has given to both the chemistry department, the faculty of science and The University of Sheffield. As a researcher he has brought a great deal.

"A Web of Science search brings up 169 papers from the years he has published in his time here, which is about a paper a month, with over 5000 citations and 9 papers with over 100 citations, furthermore, he has lead some of our bids for new equipment.  As a manager he is thoughtful, great with people, a sensible decision maker and has a great research-manager balance.

"He has done a fantastic job of being head of department (twice). I really am grateful to you for all your service to the deparment and the faculty."

On behalf of everyone at the university, we wish to thank Mike for his tireless work over the past 14 years and wish him every sucess in his future position at the University of Warwick.

Written By:
Joe Clarke

With thanks to Prof. Mike Ward and Prof. Tony Ryan