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Professor Julia King CBE, FREng has recently been appointed Vice Chancellor (i.e. chief executive) of Aston University.

Her career has spanned universities, professional bodies and industry. She has taught at Cambridge, Imperial College and Nottingham and most recently has been Principal of the Faculty of Engineering at Imperial College London.

Previously she has been Chief Executive of the Institute of Physics and during eight years at Rolls-Royce she ended up as Director of Engineering and Technology for Rolls-Royce Marine Business.


What specific degree(s) did you study?

Natural Sciences at Cambridge, with Metallurgy in my final year

What did you study at A level?

Pure Maths, Applied Maths, Physics, Chemistry

How did you first become interested and why did you choose to study Materials Science?

My school was an experimental school for the new Nuffield Science courses in Physics and in Chemistry. Both had a Materials element and I chose a Chemistry A level project on structures of metals. However I went up to Cambridge intending to be a Particle Physicist or a Theoretical Chemist, but discovered that I really enjoyed Materials in the first and second year of the Natural Sciences Tripos.

What did you like about studying Materials Science?

Initially I enjoyed crystallography and metallography and microscopy – the precision and elegance of structures and the means of determining them, the symmetry, the puzzle aspects of solving structures and the beautiful pictures! I found understanding the links between structure and behaviour very satisfying – how dislocations moved, the differences between metallic and ceramic materials, and then the ability to start to design materials with specific properties. I also enjoyed the practicals (where we made lots of models in the first year) and project work. It is a very visual subject with lots of beautiful images which you learn to ‘read’ – which makes them even more beautiful because they have meaning!

What types of general skill did your Materials Science degree help you to develop?

When I did my degree there was much less focus on ‘transferable skills’ than now. I probably learnt how to write clear reports, I learnt a lot about motivation, about being a self-starter and about what I enjoyed. How to find things out – much more time consuming then than now! – and making use of other people, how to ask for help! I wish I could say I learnt about team working and presentation skills and leadership etc, but I wasn’t very good at those when I graduated, that took a lot more practice.

How has your degree helped you in your employment? What was your first job after graduation?

After my degree I stayed in Cambridge to do a PhD and then a Research Fellowship. I then became a University Lecturer at Nottingham, subsequently returning to Cambridge to lecture in Materials – so in my early career, my degree was essential to my employment!

If you were taking your degree again, would you do anything differently?

I really enjoyed doing a degree in Metallurgy. As my career has progressed, I have moved more and more towards engineering, I sometimes wonder whether I should have considered an Engineering degree. However graduating in Metallurgy hasn’t stopped me from becoming Engineering Director for the Rolls-Royce Marine Business (main areas: nuclear propulsion plant, electric ship systems, marine gas turbines, ship design and propulsion etc) and Director of Advanced Engineering for the Rolls-Royce Industrial Businesses (new approaches to power generation and transmission and distribution, fuel cells etc) and subsequently Principal of the Engineering Faculty at Imperial College London!

What advice can you give to new Materials Science students?

Enjoy it. It is a great course to study with lots of options. Materials underpin almost every engineering development, whether it is sustainable air travel, hydrogen fuel cells, fusion energy, mobile ‘phones, artificial, implantable eyes, ears, hearts, clean water…. Every engineering company needs to know about materials, so you get to work in all sorts of places, industries etc. The big challenges for the future, such as clean energy, will have some huge materials challenges, so if you want to save the world, you have made a good choice!

Would you recommend a degree in Materials Science to students who do not plan to become Scientists and if so why?

Yes, because, as indicated above, so many products and processes are dependent on materials you get a view across a wide range of industries and applications studying Materials. You find Materials people in lots of senior jobs in companies where you might not expect to, I think it is something to do with the broad, interdisciplinary training across science and engineering that Materials degrees provide.

What were you like as a student?

Intense, hard working, very competitive (but tried not to show it!)

What is your best memory of your time in University?

My main recollection is that I really enjoyed it all, but I am sure that wasn’t entirely true at the time! I particularly enjoyed the ‘Long Vacation Term’ in the summer before my final year when those of us who had elected to read Metallurgy in our final year spent 4 weeks in Cambridge doing projects, learning to use electron microscopes, going to a few lectures and spending a lot of time in the sun on the river, or in the pub when it rained!

Who and/or what were some of the influences on you when you were at school/ university?

I was born in about the year that the first building at CERN was opened. My childhood was punctuated by the big discoveries at CERN – new particles seemed to be discovered almost weekly - and the building of nuclear power stations and Concorde in the UK. I was particularly taken by the pictures of the scientists at CERN celebrating another major breakthrough with huge smiles and glasses of champagne – it looked a very appealing life! I also had a favourite Chemistry teacher at school who was happy to let me do experiments outside the syllabus and recommended some really good books. In my first year at University we seemed to sit around into the early hours at least once a week putting the world to rights. My group of friends all read The Report of the Club of Rome about the imminent exhaustion of fossil fuel supplies. It stimulated a lot of late night discussion about the role of science and engineering in ‘saving the world’!

What advice would you give to someone embarking on a career in Materials Science?

Enjoy it. Don’t assume that the only directions you can take will keep you in Materials. It is important to understand the product and process challenges that materials can help solve and particularly the business cases for introducing new materials. It is almost always possible to invent a new material, but it is only any use if it can be developed in a timescale and at a price that the industry can afford. Sometimes in our materials research it is easy to forget that the material itself isn’t usually the end product.

What answers would you like Science to provide in the next 10 years?

Clean energy. Clean water for the huge numbers of people in the world who don’t have it and who don’t have much political clout. New ways to ‘mend’ people – challenges for materials people, medics, biologists etc.

What is your recollection of your first involvement in science?

Making butter by shaking up cream at infant school (and then eating it!!)

What do you consider to be the greatest scientific achievement of the 20th century?

Nuclear energy, the structure and role of DNA, air travel – all involving Materials scientists of course!

Was there anything about studying Materials Science that you did not expect?

Where my degree would take me, perhaps.