Ian is a Professor of Planetary Science and Astrobiology at Birkbeck College, University of London. He has trained as an astronomer, planetary scientist, and geophysicist.
I am a Professor of Planetary Science and Astrobiology at Birkbeck College, University of London. Both my first degree and PhD were in Astronomy at University College London (UCL), and between those I also did an MSc in Geophysics and Planetary Physics at Newcastle. I worked as an observational astronomer studying the interstellar medium for about 15 years after getting my PhD, mostly at UCL, before switching to planetary science at Birkbeck in 2003.
What does your role involve?
My main responsibility at Birkbeck is to administer our BSc Degree in Planetary Science with Astronomy, which is a degree programme I was responsible for establishing at Birkbeck. As part of this I also teach undergraduate modules in planetary science and astrobiology. I am also engaged in research in these topics and to-date have supervised 12 successfully completed PhD students. Day-to-day my work is typical of academics everywhere – a chaotic mix of teaching, research and administration!
What do you enjoy most about your role?
Certainly the teaching. I have always believed that the primary role of universities is to pass knowledge on to the next generation and to encourage critical thinking. Every time I stand in front of a class I am conscious of the responsibility and privilege of the role. Seeing my students, undergraduate as well as postgraduate, but especially my former PhD students, develop as independent scientists is also immensely rewarding.
What is the most challenging part of your role?
Keeping on top of the teaching, research and admin such that each is performed at least adequately!
Where do you want to be in 5/10 years?
My ambitions for the next ten years are purely academic, but involve another change of course: I would like to spend some of this time helping to build stronger links between planetary science (and related disciplines) on the one hand and the humanities on the other. I think the perspectives implied by planetary science and astrobiology involve a range of social and political implications that deserve to be better explored. I’ve made a start on articulating these connections in this piece for The Conversation and I wish to develop them further in the coming years. I have some ideas for new courses and other activities built around these themes, but whther anything will come of them, only time will tell….
When did you become interested in space/the space industry?
I’ve been interested in astronomy and space exploration for as long as I can remember. I can identify three influences: (1) My late father was always very interested in astronomy – he was a dentist, but there is no doubt that his strictly amateur interest in astronomy rubbed off on me; (2) I was seven when Apollo 11 landed on the Moon – growing up with space exploration in the news also had a great influence and I am doubtful that I would be working in science now had Apollo not taken place when it did; and (3) I started reading science fiction at the age of fourteen, which opened up new vistas on the Universe, and humanity’s possible future within it, that have never left me.
How did you get your job? Was it easy?
It is never easy to get a permanent academic job. Like many others, I held a succession of fixed-term research positions, punctuated by short periods of unemployment, before I finally got a permanent job, as a lecturer in planetary science at Birkbeck, at the age of 41. I was helped by many people: my parents were fully supportive even though they must have feared that I would never get a “proper job”, and the fact that my wife (now a Senior Lecturer in Classics at the Open University) was experiencing exactly the same career trajectory meant that we could support each other. Clearly, this very drawn-out career path, with its attendant insecurities, is not for everyone. My only advice is that if you know in your heart that teaching and research is your true vocation then it is worth persevering.
Is there anything you wished you’d learned at university that would come in useful now?
Yes, I wish I’d learned more biology. Although myself an astronomer by background, I have come to think that many astronomers are quite naïve about biology and are largely ignorant of the sheer complexity of living systems. Doubtless, biologists are equally naïve about astronomy. If we are to search successfully for life elsewhere in the universe we need break down the academic barriers between astronomy, biology and geology. Despite the well-known benefits of academic specialisms, I do think specialisation has gone too far and that more interdisciplinary teaching in the universities would be desirable. Indeed, this is partly why I established an interdisciplinary astrobiology module at Birkbeck, where a typical class will consist of students studying planetary science, geology, biochemistry, and natural sciences. I think more such interdisciplinary teaching would be desirable.
What decisions or opportunities you took do you think significantly influenced the fact you got that job?
In my case, deciding to do an MSc in Geophysics immediately after my degree in Astronomy was crucial because it opened up opportunities in planetary science that would probably not have been open to a ‘pure’ astronomer. Even though I returned to astronomy for my PhD, and spent 15 years doing astronomy research, this MSc did enable me to switch to planetary science when the opportunity arose. I am very doubtful that I would have my current position at Birkbeck without having taken this opportunity to broaden my education.
What is the most exciting space thing you’ve seen or heard about?
I don’t know how to answer this. Historically, the three most exciting things that I have witnessed in my life to-date are: (1) The Apollo programme; (2) The discovery of exoplanets; and (3) The now universal acceptance that searching for life elsewhere in the universe is a ‘legitimate’ scientific endeavour, because it was not always so. To me, the three most exciting potential future developments are: (1) The growing momentum to return humans to the Moon (e.g. the ESA Director General’s concept of a ‘Moon Village’); (2) The growing realisation that utilisation of space resources may stimulate the growth of a space economy that would enable scientific exploration on a much larger scale that has been possible to-date; and (3) The fact that interstellar space missions to explore nearby exoplanets are beginning to be seriously discussed.
What do you enjoy doing in your spare time?
I enjoy reading quite a lot. My non-fiction reading is quite eclectic, but themes related to space exploration, world history and philosophy tend to dominate. I also enjoy science fiction.