Meet the Researchers

David J. Lewis

Photo of David Lewis

Research Area: Understanding and developing inorganic lubricant additives (BP-ICAM, with Professor Paul O’Brien FRS).

What is it like being a researcher?

I truly believe it is one of the most fulfilling jobs for an individual; I feel blessed with the opportunity to work with others in the grand endeavour of science. It is not an easy road though; at times research can be hard and to the novice it may seem downright recalcitrant. However, experience has taught me that with persistence, insight and perhaps a touch of inspiration, many of the scientific difficulties that we encounter can be circumvented in time. Working under someone that supports one professionally in every way, as Professor Paul O’Brien does, also makes life easier.  I love my position at Manchester and am looking forward to the next two years here.

What inspired you to become a researcher?

I have to be honest and say that there is no single moment or person that I can pinpoint as my inspiration to become a researcher, but rather it was a process of accruement of personal interest over the years with input from many. Having good colleagues, mentors, teachers and role models around one is perhaps the most important thing – people who can, on a daily basis inspire and perhaps even challenge you into becoming a better scientist. Having parents who supported every decision I made academically also allowed me to take the natural path I wanted to go down and was key to my development as I never felt pressure to impress because they were always proud of me no matter what. Besides this, I think that I have always had an enquiring mind so science has never much seemed like a job choice to me but rather the extension of a natural interest. So, I guess I am where I am today from a conspiracy of those factors.

What is the best thing about being a researcher/your job?

I must be greedy here and say two things that I value equally. Firstly is the publication of results – as I alluded to above, I see science as a grand human endeavour and the dissemination of results is crucial to our collective enterprise. Also, there is simply the basic fact that I enjoy writing; it makes my mind feel expansive. The second is academic teaching. The moment that you see an individual’s face light up after they really understand something you’ve explained in a tutorial is priceless.

If you could go back in time which scientist/researcher/historical figure would you like to meet and what would you ask them?

Difficult question! I’d probably like to ask Ludwig van Beethoven what inspired him to write some of my favourite symphonies – the fifth, the ninth instantly spring to mind. The music in these pieces is sometimes so intense and obviously it all came out of his mind, so to stand face to face and look the man in the eye whilst we discuss this, to perhaps see that passion for his art burning there, would be totally inspiring.

What do you do in your free time?

I am extremely keen on road cycling. One of the greatest aspects about the group of scientists I work in at Manchester is that there are also people just as keen. We have our own petit peloton! A ride is always good for group morale. Chapeau! In the past couple of years I have been cycling in the Alps and Pyrenees going up (and down) some of the famous mountain passes from le Tour de France. I think Col d’Aubisque is my favourite. Hard work, but well worth the effort. Other than this you might find me walking my dog, Indy.

What is the first ‘science’ you remember doing?

Chromatography with inks using paper and water – the ink separates into its constituent dyes when water is run through the ink spot on paper! I think that was when I realised that there is always more than meets the eye, with even some of the simplest things.

What’s the funniest/strangest/most surprising experience you have had in your career?

As an undergraduate I once stood by a rotary evaporator for a while taking off some diethyl ether to isolate a compound… except I had forgotten to close the tap and ether fumes slowly escaped from the apparatus! So by the time I’d finished, I’d spent all afternoon inhaling the ether and I felt half-drunk when I hit fresh air. Later on that night in bed I had hallucinations – including a striking one with a huge green lizard crawling on the ceiling of my room. I can still see that to this day! The take home message? Always make sure your apparatus is set up correctly and then double check it. I never made that mistake again!

What discovery or invention could you not live without?

The bicycle! It is my major means of getting to work (I am enrolled in the University’s cycle to work scheme) and is also my number one hobby. Definitely could not live without it (well technically I could, but I probably would not be as stress free).

What do you think is the most important thing yet to be discovered/invented?

In terms of human society in the long-term, robust alternatives to fossil fuels need to be discovered for obvious reasons, although the access to new reserves of fossil fuels afforded by hydrofracturing (a.k.a. ‘fracking’) has of late allowed some breathing space on this. Cures for disease as well as understanding their underlying mechanisms are also important.