Professor Lynn Gladden, CBE, FRS

Doctor of Science Professor Lynn Gladden

Monday 15 July 2013 at 11.15 am - Orator: Professor Mike Ashfold

Mr Pro Vice-Chancellor,

Today’s honorary graduand, Professor Lynn Gladden, the Shell Professor of Chemical Engineering, and Pro-Vice Chancellor for Research at the University of Cambridge, is a wonderful exemplar of a Bristol graduate who has progressed to become an undisputed leader in their field.  Lynn’s career also highlights the way one’s plans may evolve, in response to changing circumstances and/or new opportunities.

Lynn was born and educated in London, and already had a clear career plan in mind by the time she came to Bristol to read Physics as an undergraduate in 1979 – namely to become a teacher of physics and mathematics. By her own admission, however, she soon recognised that while there were many aspects of the Physics curriculum that she greatly enjoyed, there were other topics at which she was sure she would never excel. What to do?  Switch course to Chemistry – which also featured much of the material for which Lynn felt greatest affinity?  No.  As a first year Physics undergraduate, Lynn had already taken a subsidiary course in Chemistry and realised that it, too, contained elements she could never really enjoy. Fortunately, then as now, Bristol offered a ‘third way’ – a degree in Chemical Physics, ideal for students strong in physics, chemistry and maths, whose interests lie at the boundaries between chemistry and physics. Thus it was that Lynn transferred to this course at the end of year one and graduated two years later with a first class Honours Degree in Chemical Physics.

Actually, the path from course transfer to successful graduation was much less smooth or inevitable than my narrative might suggest. Lynn also excelled at lacrosse, and was already captain of the Bristol University team and a member of the British Universities Sports Federation squad by the time she damaged her spine during a training session whilst a second year undergraduate.  Lynn’s competitive sport career was over.  Such a realisation would challenge any 19 year old, but Lynn picked herself up and treated this blow as an opportunity – to devote more time to her academic studies. This she did to great effect, not just gaining the first class degree, but also winning two prizes for her final year research project in the low-temperature physics group.  Protocol dictates that Lynn has no opportunity to speak in this ceremony, but she has specifically asked that I use this occasion to thank her parents and the University of Bristol staff, all of whom could not have been more supportive throughout this difficult period in her life.

After Bristol, Lynn spent a year in Oxford working for her postgraduate certificate in education. The physics teacher career plan was still in place. But the undergraduate research project had been exciting, challenging, fun. Lynn had experienced the ‘high’ that comes with discovering some new science. Could she achieve more?  Thus it was that Lynn moved to Cambridge in 1983 to begin Ph.D. research on the structures of inorganic glasses in the Department of Physical Chemistry – and a new career path was launched. Lynn’s Ph.D. research was spectacularly successful, and her excellence was recognised with the award of a Pickering Research Fellowship from the Royal Society. 1987 saw Lynn appointed to an Assistant Lectureship in the Department of Chemical Engineering in Cambridge – on the basis of a burgeoning reputation for being both numerate and a ‘chemist’.  Then came an ICI Fellowship (one of the first two awarded to young chemical engineers in academia anywhere), and promotions to Lecturer (1989), Reader (1995) and Professor of Chemical Engineering Science (1999). 

Lynn’s research centres on the development of magnetic resonance measurements and, in particular, adapting magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) methods – as used in hospitals – to study non-medical subjects.  The average human adult body is ~53% water by weight and involves lots of soft tissue; medical MRI methods have been optimised to probe such ‘soft’ systems. The systems of interest in chemical engineering, in contrast, often contain large fractions of solid material – granular catalyst particles, for example, or rock in the case of improved oil recovery strategies. Lynn’s group is particularly interested in multi-component adsorption, diffusion, flow and reaction in porous media. Without going into detail, using MRI methods in such engineering applications is challenging: the signals are generally much weaker than those in medical MRI. Lynn’s group is internationally recognised for boosting the sensitivity of engineering MRI methods, improving the achievable spatial and/or time resolution of such measurements, and determining absolute (rather than relative) values for the property of interest (water content, flow velocity, etc). Her work spans experiment (new and improved reactor design, for example), theory (enhanced data acquisition and processing methods) and applications.  Lynn has enjoyed long term partnerships with major industrial partners (Johnson-Matthey, Microsoft Research, ExxonMobil, Schlumberger) active in the catalysis, oil recovery and pharmaceutical technology sectors and her research has helped advance several products and process technologies in these fields.

Inevitably, Lynn’s achievements have attracted many awards, but also many responsibilities. The interdisciplinary nature of her research achievements is illustrated by her election to the Fellowship of the Institute of Chemical Engineers, the Royal Society of Chemistry, the Institute of Physics and the Royal Academy of Engineering.  Lynn was elected to the Fellowship of the Royal Society in 2004, and awarded an OBE (for services to chemistry) in 2001 and a CBE (for services to chemical engineering) in 2009.  She has been a Miller Visiting Professor at the University of California, Berkeley in 1996 and is currently an Honorary Professor at Beijing University of Chemical Technology and a Visiting Professor at Nanyang Technical University in Singapore.

To Lynn’s enormous credit, she has succeeded in combining her world leading research with a full share of high profile leadership duties.  Lynn was Head of the Department of Chemical Engineering at Cambridge for the four years prior to her appointment as Pro-Vice Chancellor for Research in 2010.  She was a longstanding advisor and consultant for Unilever and has recently been appointed to Shell Science Council. Lynn was a member of the Chemical Engineering panel in the Research Assessment Exercises in 2001 and 2008, and has a distinguished record of service for EPSRC – the UK research council with primary responsibility for supporting engineering and science. Lynn also serves on committees of the Royal Society and the Royal Academy of Engineering, but the final responsibility I wish to share with you is her membership of the international panel for the award of the first ever Queen Elizabeth Prize for Engineering. This is a major new award, established to recognise engineering achievements and to highlight the importance of engineering in transforming our lives. In time, it is hoped the Queen Elizabeth Prize will acquire a status equal to that of the Nobel Prizes for sciences, medicine, literature and peace. Nominations came from all engineering disciplines and, given that this was the first such award, selecting the winner was an exciting, but also challenging, task.  In the event, the £1m prize was awarded to five engineers credited with creating the internet and the World Wide Web, who received their prize from the Queen on 25 June.

Mr Pro Vice-Chancellor, a succession of physics-oriented school pupils have surely been disadvantaged by Lynn’s change of career plan in 1983, but the scale, the quality and the impact of her subsequent scientific achievements and contributions should serve as an inspiration to us all.  I present Professor Lynn Gladden as eminently worthy of the degree of Doctor of Science, honoris causa.


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