Sunday, 29 January 2017

'Nothing You Do Is Ultimately Wasted'

Each term I feature a different Kent award winner in the Research Services newsletter, looking at their research and discussing their career path and funding track record. In September I featured Dr Heather Ferguson. This time the spotlight falls on Prof John Batchelor in the School of Engineering and Digital Arts.

Prof John Batchelor
John Batchelor looked bashful when I pointed out that he had won more EPSRC grants - and received more EPSRC funding - than anyone else at the University. ‘I’ve just developed a thick skin,’ he joked. ‘Everyone gets knocked back. The trick is not to give up. But that’s easier said than done, especially when the rejections come all at once. That was the case for me in December. Christmas was quite dark last year.’

John has been at Kent for more than 25 years, arriving as an undergraduate and progressing through his doctorate to postdoc researcher and on to being promoted to a chair this year. As head of the Antennae Group in EDA, John’s research is focussed on wearable wireless technologies and low energy passive systems for the Internet of Things. He has pioneered embedding antennae in a variety of atypical media, from tattoo-type skin transfers to jean buttons.

He puts his funding success down to a willingness to ‘go off the beaten track’. He’s always had a curiosity, for talking to others outside his discipline, for learning from others, and exploring how their research can inform each other’s work. Recent examples include his work with Simon Holder and Maria Alfredsson in SPS. This interest comes through as an excitement for the potential offered by new crossovers, and this is reflected in his grant proposals.

‘Applying to the EPSRC takes a lot of effort - especially emotionally effort - and it is easy to play it safe,’ he says, ‘but reviewers are asked to comment on the novelty and potential of a project, and if this is apparent, they can forgive a lot else.’ The trick is to be able to explain complicated concepts so that reviewers outside of your discipline can understand them, whilst keeping the experts in the field happy with sufficient detail. ‘You can’t over-explain’, he suggests, ‘but you will never catch everything.’

I asked John if his career - and research projects - had followed a clearly defined path. ‘When I first started out I had my fingers out, seeing what I could catch, but over the years my research has become much more themed and consolidated.’ Whilst many of his interests chime with EPSRC’s strategic priorities, he doesn’t follow them slavishly. Nevertheless, he makes sure that his proposals make a nod towards them.  ‘You have to make it easy for the reviewers to make that connection, for them to see how your research meets a particular priority.’

Over the course of the last quarter century his work has evolved and developed. Each project is a ‘progression’ on the last, building on and enhancing the work that has gone before. Even in the middle of the current project, the seeds of the next are being sown, and what might appear like a blind alley - and a rejection from the funder - can result in new contacts, new publications and new ideas. ‘Nothing you do is ultimately wasted - in research as well as in life’, he concludes.

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