Humans of Bristol University

Dr. Thomas Jordan

This Interview was carried out by Corrie Macleod, a Student Fellow.

Thomas Jordan is a Lecturer in Mathematics. His BoB Lecture ‘How Can Mathematics Improve Your Baking?’ will examine how a complex dynamical systems theory could be applied to our home baking skills. I caught up with Thomas to talk about his maths research, as well as his academic journey…

This picture was taken by Corrie on the 1st March in Howard House Math’s Common Room .

When you were a student, did you know you were going to become an academic in your field?

So… I come from a family of mathematicians, both my parents are mathematicians, my older brother is also a mathematician.

To be honest, I never really plan to get into mathematics, until I realised it was the subject I enjoyed the most at school and at university. As I got more invested in my degree, I particularly enjoyed  the pure side of maths. From there, I just went into a PhD and drifted down into the academic route.

There never was a specific time when I thought  ‘I’m definitely going to be an academic!’

Did you ever feel stressed when you were doing your PhD?

I certainly did.  When you’re trying to come up with original problems in maths, about 95% of work is realizing how stupid you are…Realizing that what you’ve been doing for the last couple of weeks doesn’t work at all is a very standard experience as a mathematician.

It’s challenging because anybody researching maths can at some point feel they’re not good enough or that what they’re doing isn’t actually relevant after all… All of these issues can come up when studying the subject, it’s difficult. Of course, that’s stressful, but you kind of go along with it! You have to remember not to be discouraged.

Do you think students tend to worry too much about the future?

I think you should look ahead and think about the future. But if you’re enjoying what you’re doing at the moment, then things do tend to work out and fall into place.

What do you think of the balance between your maths research and teaching?

It’s important to have a balance between researching and teaching. As I said, Maths research can be rewarding when it works out, but a lot of the time, it doesn’t. So, to have something more concrete to do is also extremely satisfying. Teaching does provide that.

I’d also say it’s very rewarding when you have students you see graduate, growing in confidence, going on to be successful through their time at university… It’s the most rewarding thing you experience as an academic.

Do you know all of your students by name?

No *laughs*

Do you try to remember your students names as much as possible?

So, when I’m teaching in smaller groups, I try to learn their names. I mean, when I’m teaching first-year lectures, where there are around 350 students, it’s impossible to know! You basically have certain faces and students you recognize. You will also occasionally meet with students who obviously know who I am, but I have no idea who they are… When that happens,  I then tend to assume that they’re probably a first year Maths student.

Do you remember who your favorite professor at university?

Yeah a couple!  I was s a student at St. Andrews. Dr.  Nik Ruskuc and Dr. Lars Olsen were a big influence on me. They were both very engaging lecturers. Both of them knew everybody in the class by name. They also always encouraged you to go beyond the standard curriculum and spend time working on harder problems beyond the syllabus, it was not about setting material around an exam.

What’s the most surprising thing that you learned about teaching and mass or anything?

I’m trying to think… Plenty of things have surprised me.

I think one thing is that when lecturing Maths, you can be better when you do ‘live’ calculations and risk making mistakes rather than being overly prepared.

If you over-prepare, you can make things look too easy and you don’t really get a clear idea of how you think about problems or calculations. You don’t reflect. if you actually think about it, you actually think about how you learn and practice math beyond what’s provided from reading a textbook.

That goes for every subject I think. You have to think about how you know what you know.

So, how did you make this connection between your research in Maths and Baking?

When I got the invitation to give my Best of Bristol Lecture, it came with a topic suggested by the students.  I thought it was a bit of a joke at first… the subject was cooking! Then I decided I would actually go ahead with that topic. In the area that I work – dynamical systems – there is something called the ‘Baker’s Map’, which is a system named after the process of kneading dough … It’s a bit complicated to explain but, hopefully, the content of my lecture will make a good ‘general audience’ talk.

You told me earlier that your favorite thing to bake was chocolate cake and that the secret ingredient was good chocolate. Are there other baking secrets you can share?

There’s one thing I like to bake: a dark chocolate cake that has Guinness in it. People love it, but I usually can’t tell them I made it with Guinness because that puts them off. I don’t usually tell people about that secret ingredient… I mean, between good chocolate and Guinness, good chocolate always wins people over!

Are there other things besides Baking that you do to relax?

I really like going hiking. Going on a weekend hiking trip is definitely a good way to relax.

What’s your favorite hiking spot around here?

I love going to  Quantocks, Mendips and  Abergavenny. You can actually take a bus there! And the bus tours halfway between Taunton and Minehead. The route is beautiful.

Come to Dr. Thomas Jordan’s BoB Lecture on the 14th of March at Orchard Heights! You can learn more about the talk right here:

The oral transcription was edited for the readers.

Humans of Bristol University

Dr. Mark Schenk

This interview was carried out by Corrie Macleod, a Student Fellow.

Dr. Mark Schenk is a Lecturer in Aerospace Engineering. His research area focuses on the application of origami in science. His BoB lecture ‘Folding the Future: How Origami is Transforming Engineering’ will explore the fascinating link between the Japanese Art and Engineering. I caught up with Mark yesterday to talk about his research and his path into academia…

Taken on the 7th of March 2019 in Dr. Mark Schenk’s office

Tell us about your upcoming BoB lecture, Give us a pitch!

It’s going to be about origami! Most people think of it as an art, they mostly think about, those  familiar paper crane structures that are a classic example of origami.

I want to show that there is more to it than that! There is science involved. In fact, origami has an important application in engineering. Civil Engineering, Aerospace Engineering… What I want people to get out of my lecture is that it’s a lot more than just child’s play, it’s more than just paper folding. That’s my pitch for the talk!

How did you first get interested in the topic?

When I started my PhD.  Basically, I was given a rough topic area,  then I was told to go away and come up with a proposal. I was also influenced by mum’s love of origami. She used to do them quite a lot when I was a kid. My supervisor’s area was in structural engineering and it was really by chance that these two fit together.

Had I not been exposed to origami as a child, I don’t know if I would have done by PhD that way. Obviously I didn’t just make my childhood hobby my research, as they are two very different things, but it was great to find how they linked.

My interest were in deployable structures, structures that can package up and unfold… My research group seemed interested and that really led the rest of my research. I guess it just came out of the air and fell into place nicely, really!

Are you going to do an origami demo during your talk?

Not a demo, but I’m thinking of bringing this structure up.

(Holds up red structure shown in image)

I made this with one of my my PhD students. This is the classic pattern, it’s also very big. It’s a flat sheet,or at least, it was a flat sheet which was cut and folded with our laser cutter. This is often used in retractable satellite structures that are sent into space!  It’s fascinating because the structure can be folded very compactly but can also be extended.

Will this cool structure ever be applied to housing in the future?

There are people who are working on that area. I’m not sure about housing as you have to take into consideration different materials and structures… but I know, for instance, there are people who work on these structures in the US army, they’re using these great origami principles to develop rapid deployable shelters!

As an academic, what do you think about the balance of research and teaching?

I think I need both. I don’t think I could do just pure teaching because I do like the freedom that comes with research and investigation. I also love supervising projects with fourth year students and teaching my undergraduate courses. There’s always something new to experience and something interesting to learn from both!

What’s the most rewarding thing about teaching?

There are two parts to my answer. I love being able to share what I discovered with people who also share the same passions and interests that I do. I also love seeing my students get interested in the topic and understanding these concepts. Seeing their faces when the ‘penny drops’ is great.

I don’t know how big your cohord is, but I know that in a lecture hall with 100 aerospace engineering students, you can’t always see every single student’s reactions… But, when you do see them grasping concepts and understanding, it’s truly great.

I’ve been in Bristol for 4 years now and seeing that first full cohort change from year 1 to year 4 is amazing.  To see how much my 4th years developed and changed from the first time I met them when they first got to Bristol is great!

I also learned that the first years tend to ask the toughest questions. They ask questions about our teaching as well as our mindset. It’s refreshing to get asked “How do you really know what you know?” “Why is that the case?”

I sometimes have to think about it and get back to them later!

When you were a student, did you know you wanted to become an academic?

I think I kind of rolled into becoming an academic rather than being inspired by a particular person or moment. Back in my university in the Netherlands I just knew I was good at maths and physics and that engineering would fit for me. I was right!

Do you think students get pressured into worrying about the future?

There certainly are external pressures, like family expectations, university rankings etc… It is valuable to think about your future, of course, but take time to explore your options a bit before going down a certain route. You already made decisions before university with your subject choice at A levels and university, You are on track already.

Engineering students do a lot of summer internships, because it’s seen as an expectation for them to secure a job.  Of course it is important, but you should also use those summers to get out of the house and enjoy yourself, because you won’t have as much time when you’re actually working. Just remember to enjoy the experience!

What were thoughts on your future when you first became a university student?

I picked engineering because I was good at math and physics, but I never really thought I was going to become something specific. I just really enjoyed learning. The engineering degree just seemed to be a good fit and I’m so glad I followed that path! As a student, I didn’t really plan on becoming an engineer, but now that I am an engineer, I can’t imagine myself NOT being one!

Do you have any wise advice for students?

If you’re not sure what you want to be at age 18, that’s fine. Because you shouldn’t. Everybody is different.  Of course, degree systems can make it difficult to switch subjects, but you have to remember that you are not defined by your degree. There are plenty aerospace engineers who then go work in completely different, fulfilling industries.

No one expects every student to be a subject geek when they come into university. If you come in focused, knowing what you want,  that’s good, that’s excellent! But, at the same time, if you come in saying you don’t know what you enjoy, that’s important too. That’s why you’re here, to discuss, to learn and to discover. That’s when you’ll learn what your interest is.

What do you do to relax? I noticed you have a cool bike in this office.

I don’t actually bike… This was a broken bicycle I was supposed to use for one of my classes… But I never got around to fixing it!

So, to relax, I really do like to walk. I find that it is therapeutic to just step outside, leave the office and explore the city. I also walk to work every day and that walk always helps me clear my mind.

What’s your favourite thing to do in Bristol?

Go to North Street in Southville! Quite a few lecturers go there actually. On Saturdays, there are so many things to do. It’s perfect. You can explore bakeries, go to the butchers, local grocery stores and cafés or catch a show at the Tobacco Factory!

I also would recommend going to the Bristol Balloon Fiesta in the Summer. I know that a lot of students are probably home for the summer, but if you get the opportunity, head to the Downs and watch it! It’s absolutely beautiful.

Come and attend Dr. Schenk’s BoB Lecture on the 11th of March:

An interview with..., Humans of Bristol University, News, Uncategorized

Tricha Passes

Tricha Passes is a Teaching Fellow in History of Art. Her ‘Best of Bristol’ Lecture on the 14th of March explores the role of the Parisian Café as a meeting place for the exchange of art and ideas in the early twentieth century.


Who inspired you to go to university?

My parents encouraged me to go, and I went with the goal and expectation of increasing my knowledge and understanding of art history. The lecturers at the Courtauld Institute were very inspirational.

Tell us about your favourite teacher.

Dr. Robert Ratcliffe was a brilliant teacher, and one who really made me think about the power of looking and pausing to look and reflect. He was an expert in Impressionism and Post-Impressionism, particularly on Paul Cezanne.

Did you know what you wanted to do after university?

I was unsure exactly what I wanted to do after university, but I knew I wanted to work in the creative arts!

What kinds of things do you do in the classroom to engage your students?

I like students to think about the cultural impact of the period that they are studying and researching. The use of music, film and poetry all play a very significant role in aiding our understanding.

Have you got any surprising stories from your time as an art historian?

I think my most surprising stories come from the fascinating interviews I have undertaken with a range of artists and their families. I remember taking the railway historian and travel writer George Behrend out for a midsummer meal in the Scottish Highlands while I interviewed him about his father’s commissioning of Sir Stanley Spencer for the Burghclere murals. He had been a chauffeur for a time to Benjamin Britten, the composer! He had some good stories to tell.

What do you like to do to relax in your free time?

I like to wild swim or go for a walk in the woods.

What advice would you give students who are worried about the future after university? 

It is as important to know what you don’t want to do, as well as what you want to aim  for. Use all the university and friend networks to help you on your way. Don’t be shy about writing to people or companies you want to work for. Nothing ventured, nothing gained – shoot out those arrows!

Have you got a favourite café in Bristol or Paris?

My favourite café in Paris is one facing Place des Voges in Le Marais, and my favourite in Bristol is The Albion in Clifton, though that’s technically a pub.

Describe your lecture in three words?

I can do it in six: ‘A journey to a past time.’

Reserve your free tickets for Tricha’s lecture now: ‘Cafe Cosmopolitanism in a Pre-Starbucks Age: Paris Internationalism pre-WW1’ 



Humans of Bristol University

Jez Conolly

Jez Conolly is the Head of Student Engagement for Library Services at the university. See below to listen to the full interview or check out the text for the best bits!

Taken on February 15th 2019 in Jez’s office on Berkeley Square


I was an art student for many years back in the 1980s. I’ve worked for the university since 1990 by the way, so I go back a long way. My academic background is also in film research, so I’ve always tended to gravitate towards writing about cinema. My dad was a cinema manager for over 40 years, from just before the Second World War to 1980! So that’s probably where my general interest stems from.

I started writing articles for an online magazine in 2008 and started making a few connections with different publishers. Along with my wife, we co-edited three volumes in a book series called World Film Locations for Intellect Ltd which is a Bristol based publisher. We covered city locations, so we did Dublin, Reykjavik (which is a difficult one because there aren’t very many films made in Iceland at all) and Liverpool, which was quite a nice one to do.

You’ll actually find that there are quite a few creative people with creative backgrounds amongst the library staff. A member of my team, Beccy Pert, won the Cheltenham Literature Festival First Novel Prize last year! We have quite a few people who are writers and we have someone who’s involved in the graphic novel market, so there’s a whole load of really talented people working for the library.

I think it’s really nice to have that arts and creative background to draw upon in terms of what we do as a service because I think the thing with libraries is that, to your average user, there is often the potential for the service to be regarded as a little bit dry but necessary, so we try and moisten it a little bit to make it interesting and engaging. It helps to know that there are library colleagues out there who have the drive to get their teeth into something more creative when called upon to do so.

We’re really keen to contribute to links between the city and the university. In 2017, Bristol had UNESCO City of Film status bestowed upon it, which is not terribly widely known. I would really like to see how the university can do something around that. I’m working with the subject librarian for TV and Film to see if we can forge links between that department and what’s going on with UNESCO.

I always think the student experience should be porous; they should feel able to go into different spaces or have different experiences during their time at the university and within the city, and there’s no reason why that experience shouldn’t merge and become all part of the same thing. I think staff should be attempting to encourage and enable that porousness to happen. If that means, you know, making a point of going out and doing a thing that is beyond what is on my job description, I’m more than happy to do that. I can talk until the cows come home about this sort of thing!

A course is like a vehicle, and you jump on and jump off and the world carries on anyway; I think it’s very healthy to be as aware of that as you possibly can from as early a point in a course as you can be. I know what it’s like to be on a course and feel almost enclosed by it, and thinking the outside world can go hang, but it can’t really because one day you’ll rejoin it, so it’s better to be aware of that from the outset, I think.

Interview conducted by Phoebe Graham

Jez’s published writing:

Twitter: @BristolUniLib

Instagram: @bristol_uni_lib

Facebook: @BristolUniLib

Humans of Bristol University

Dr. Alix Dietzel

The interview was carried out by Corrie Macleod, a Student Fellow.

Alix Dietzel is a Lecturer in International Relations and Global Ethics. Her ‘Best of Bristol’ Lecture on the 4th of March presents her research on just global responses to climate change and its ethical impact on societies. I met up with Alix to chat about her research, but most importantly, to learn about her journey into academia.

Taken on February 22nd 2019 in Alix’s office on Priory Rd.

Tell us a bit about your upcoming BoB lecture on Climate Change

My lecture will focus on climate change as an issue of justice and discuss to what extent the political global response to it is fair. My research is broadly about the human side of the climate change problem – I look at which human rights will be threatened, who will be in danger, why these individuals deserve protection and how fair decisions around climate change should be made. The lecture will reflect on all of these aspects and I hope students will come away with a new understanding of the climate change problem.

When you were a student, did you always know you were going to become an academic?

No, not always. I knew I wanted to teach from a young age (six or seven), and I initially planned to study literature to become a school teacher. My parents weren’t very encouraging of this idea, however. My mother told me I would be a good lawyer and because I wasn’t quite sure about my decision to become a teacher, I agreed to study Politics and International Relations. My aim was to become a human rights lawyer – I thought I’d be able to ‘help people’ that way, maybe do some good in the world. It was during the 2nd year of my undergraduate degree at Sheffield that I first considered becoming an academic. I had a good friend who wanted to do a PhD in History, and my conversations with him made me realise that I could still become a teacher, but at university level.

Were you always this passionate and interested in your area of research?

Not exactly. My first PhD idea was to research ‘European identity’ and how we might work towards a ‘global identity’ to tackle global problems more effectively. I tested out this subject during my master’s dissertation but found it a bit boring and dry. I then took a year out to consider changing topics (and worked for an NGO!). I knew I wanted research a topic that had to do with solving global problems. My prospective supervisor proposed a few different ideas, including doing a PhD focusing on climate change, and that’s what I ended up finding most interesting when I did further research and wrote a new proposal!

When you were doing your PhD, did you ever think, ‘did I make a mistake’?

Every academic has moments when they think they’ve made a mistake.  You sometimes wonder: Am I crazy to be doing this? A PhD is hard work and it can be quite lonely. It’s also scary to share your ideas because they might be criticised and rejected. However, I started teaching in the second year of my PhD and I really loved that part of the job – it motivated me to keep going. Eventually, I also got more confident in my research abilities, and I am so glad I finished my PhD. It led me here and I really love my job.

So, what’s the most rewarding thing about teaching?

It’s hard to pick one thing, but I’d have to say it’s watching people grow as intellectuals. It’s so rewarding to see a student say they find the topic difficult or boring (political theory is a hard sell!) and then eventually see their interest in the topic grow as their confidence develops. The people that doubt themselves are usually the cleverest, so it’s an easy job in some ways. You just have to help them find their way a little bit.

What makes a great academic?

It’s hard to say because academics wear a lot of hats! They’re involved in research, public engagement, administration, and teaching. Ultimately, for me, it has to be someone who cares about teaching and learning, not just their own research or career. So, an ideal academic is passionate about their research, but also passionate about teaching this to students and sharing their knowledge with the wider public.

What is the most surprising thing about being an academic?

Probably realising not everyone just like you were as a student. When you start teaching, you have a memory of how you were, and you remember the things that you liked. A lot of academics, including me, were ‘nerds’ as students. We were at the front of the class, participating and doing the reading. But I realised very quickly that not everyone is like that. People are shy, people sometimes aren’t motivated to read because they find it difficult, people don’t always like studying… I had to realise that not everyone is like me, and that’s ok! The key for me was to find a way to engage all of my students, and that took some time to figure out.

What’s your advice for students who aren’t really sure about their future?

I think everybody is worried about what they are doing to some extent. Even me, an academic at one of the best universities in the world, still worries about the future and whether what they’re doing is the right thing. Ideally, you should be comforted by the idea that your self-doubt is not something unique. Everybody doubts themselves sometimes – that’s part of life. The best advice I would give is to talk about your worries! Tell your friends or family how you feel, I am sure they’ll share their own concerns. You’ll quickly learn that you’re not the only person who’s scared of the future.

What do you do to relax and get out of your head when you get these tough feelings?

It depends. Sometimes I like to work out at the gym after work or go for a hike on the weekend because it clears my brain. When I’m stressed, I am often not physically tired, but rather just ‘brain tired’ – exercise helps me with that! If I’m not in the mood, maybe I’ll order some nice food or take a relaxing bath.

It’s very trendy at the moment to say, ‘self-care matters’, but it’s true! It’s important to recognise that when you’re stressed, you need extra kindness from yourself. How would you talk to a friend who was feeling stressed? How would you help them? Treat yourself with the same respect and kindness.

If you’re too short of time for any of that (for example, if you’re about to give a presentation), the best thing to do is to acknowledge the stress, take a few deep breaths and face the anxiety. The presentation (or whatever challenge faces you) will never go as badly as you’re imagining. And, once you successfully face your fears, it’ll be slightly easier next time.

What’s one thing students should do in Bristol?

Take a street art tour! It takes you to areas that are not Clifton, side streets you wouldn’t usually explore, and it’s a different way of experiencing the city. You get to see beautiful, huge pieces of street art you never notice until you go on a tour with a street artist!

You can watch Dr Dietzel’s BoB Lecture right here:

The content of our oral transcription has been edited for the readers.