Dr Patrick Barrie

From studying Natural Sciences, to researching spectroscopy, to teaching Chemical Engineering and, throughout, playing tiddlywinks.

I first came to Emmanuel College as an undergraduate in 1984 to study Natural Sciences. I was attracted to Cambridge by the flexibility that the course offered, having always done well in maths and the sciences at school, but not having a clear idea of any career. I was attracted to Emmanuel because, even then, the College had a reputation for friendliness as well as academic excellence. I ended up specialising in chemistry, which came as something as a surprise to those who thought I was better at maths and physics.

During my final year as an undergraduate, I attended some seminars describing how recent advances in NMR spectroscopy enabled solids, rather than just liquids and solutions, to be studied. Either the subject matter, or the speaker’s enthusiasm for the topic, struck a chord with me. I therefore stayed on at Emmanuel and Cambridge to obtain a PhD in Physical Chemistry. My research area was using NMR spectroscopy to study new families of porous solids that had potential applications as catalysts. I was particularly proud of my synthesis and characterisation of one named SAPO-34, a catalyst that is now used commercially in methanol-to-olefin synthesis.

After completing my PhD, I was awarded a research fellowship at University College London where I continued to work on solid-state NMR spectroscopy for four years. I looked at a whole variety of systems using this technique and published results in a number of different areas, including materials science, biochemistry and palaeontology as well as various branches of chemistry.

Approaching 30 years old, I faced a career choice – academia or industry. The result of a few tentative applications was appointment to a lectureship in Chemical Engineering at Cambridge in 1995. The application was hesitant because I knew very little about chemical engineering, but the position had the attraction that it guaranteed that I would learn something. Indeed, I can now speak authoritatively about most, but not all, aspects of the discipline. I am a Chartered Engineer, who can think about large-scale processing, as well as being a Chartered Chemist who can think about molecules.

My research area has changed since my move back to Cambridge. I investigate the behaviour of molecules in porous solids. This involves trying to understand adsorption, diffusion and reaction in porous solids, using both experimental and modelling approaches. The potential applications are in the fields of applied catalysis and gas separations. I also spend time developing methods for obtaining physically meaningful parameters on catalysts from experimental data. These parameters can then be used to model catalytic processes and predict performance under a full range of operating conditions.

I have always enjoyed teaching. I tutored A-level maths before I started University, supervised undergraduates during my PhD, and taught at University College London before becoming a lecturer in Cambridge. Being able to think of ways to explain awkward concepts is an important skill both as a lecturer and as a supervisor. I am a Fellow of the Higher Education Academy and was awarded a Pilkington Prize in 2008 by the University for excellence in teaching.

For Emmanuel College, I have been Director of Studies in Chemical Engineering since 1996, was made a bye-fellow in 2004, and became an official fellow in 2007. For the University, I am currently the Deputy Head (Teaching) of the Department of Chemical Engineering and Biotechnology. This means that I have major role in all aspects of teaching including developing the syllabus, implementing quality assurance procedures, mentoring staff and liaising with students.

Among my hobbies is the noble sport of tiddlywinks. I first started playing when I joined the student society when I was an undergraduate, little knowing that this would be the one activity that I would continue with throughout my life. I compete in national tournaments and have even managed to win the occasional world championship title.