As a child of Jamaican origin growing up in the British city of Nottingham, Mark Richards experienced firsthand the disadvantages that can accrue to ethnic-minority students. At school, Richards—together with children from working-class backgrounds—was confronted with negative assumptions about his academic capabilities.
Richards, though, made the most of his opportunities. He became a highflier and pursued his interest in science and technology undeterred. After a short stint working in technical sales, he returned to graduate school. After completing his Ph.D., he did many different jobs unrelated to his studies before taking his current role as a senior teaching fellow and head of outreach in the physics department at Imperial College London (ICL).
In that role, Richards is in an ideal position to level the playing field and broaden opportunities for students regardless of background. “I was so close to being denied the opportunity of enjoying this journey into physics,” he says. “I want to do what I can to help things move towards where I think they should be. There is no fundamental reason why any group of people should be underrepresented within science.”
Overcoming negative attitudes
Richards had an early passion for science and received a lot of support at home, particularly from his mom, a nurse. But his aspirations toward higher education were not initially encouraged at the school he attended, which seemed to assume that what the pupils could achieve was dictated by their ethnic or social backgrounds, Richards says. Children from ethnic-minority populations were generally grouped with children from working-class backgrounds, he states, and there was little expectation that any of them would excel. The pupils the teachers concentrated on and earmarked for university were mostly white middle-class students, he says.
But these experiences propelled him to work harder. “I wanted to prove I could achieve educationally, and it felt as though I was representing more than just me,” Richards says. “I generally felt I was representing … those who were pre-judged not to be made of the right stuff before they’ve been given a fair chance to prove themselves.”
With good grades and an inspirational teacher, whom he credits for his early love for chemistry, Richards was able to study that subject—and also math and economics—at A-level. He went on to earn a B.Sc. degree in chemistry at the University of Manchester, where his interest shifted to physics. “In that degree, there were lots of modules which were very physics-related, which I seemed to naturally gravitate to, such as physical and theoretical chemistry, and spectroscopy,” Richards says.
Gaining a range of work experience
After graduating, Richards took a job as a technical consultant at PerkinElmer, a U.S. manufacturer of analytical instruments with a U.K. base near London, providing technical support via the telephone to the company’s sales force and to customers in hospitals and research labs.
After 2 years at the company, Richards was hoping to apply for promotion and become a product specialist. He discovered that nearly all product specialists had Ph.D.s., so he decided to go back to university. He earned a Ph.D. in the Space and Atmospheric Physics Group at ICL, designing equipment for very high-resolution measurements of trace gases in the atmosphere.
Following completion of his Ph.D., in 1999, Richards moved back to Nottingham. His mother had died a year earlier, and “I wanted to be around my siblings,” he says. “There was no great need for an atmospheric physicist in Nottingham at that time, so I relied on my transferable skills.” He took a job as a project coordinator for the energy supplier Powergen (now E.ON UK). After that, he became a credit manager for BWB Consulting, where he also worked as an environmental scientist. Then he worked as a financial analyst at Ramesys (e-Business) Services Ltd.
Discovering a love for teaching and outreach
Hoping to position himself for a research job in industry, Richards then took a postdoc at ICL, working on a tech-transfer project to move a prototype for an atmospheric sensor through to commercialization. His new role drew on both his scientific skills and his commercial experience.
His ambitions changed, however, as he gained experience teaching undergraduate tutorials and lab sessions at ICL and took part in some of the college’s outreach work with local schools. He enjoyed both teaching and outreach, so when a position was advertised for a senior teaching fellow and head of outreach in ICL’s physics department, he applied for it—and won the position.
Today, Richards has a wide range of responsibilities. He supervises undergraduate and master’s degree projects, works on student admissions, and lectures in a course on innovation—where he passes on, for example, the financial management expertise he gained working in the private sector. Richards also spends about 10% of his time on research, developing wireless air sensor networks for detecting airborne pollution in real time.
Richards feels he would have benefited from a role model he could relate to when he was a Ph.D. student. However, he now realizes that his broad range of work experience compensated for the lack of early guidance, allowing him to figure out for himself what he wanted to do and to gain the necessary skills. “I feel you have a job and a career. Your career grows and develops regardless of what job you are doing, and outside experiences can feed into your career. If you collect many different tools in a shed, eventually you’ll use them to build something. That’s how your career works,” Richards says.
The other part of Richards’ portfolio is managing the physics department’s outreach program, which employs two other people. A hallmark in these activities is his effort to draw in all kinds of audiences. He is especially adept at this, writes John Hassard, a physicist at ICL who was Richards’ academic supervisor during his postdoc, in an e-mail to Science Careers, because “[h]e feels and conveys a great sense of fun, taking neither the subject nor himself too seriously … but [he is] serious enough for his audience to sense his deep passion and his understanding that physics can be a great force for good.”
Many of the outreach activities that Richards organizes emphasize providing access to science education for students from all backgrounds. The workshops for teachers, for example, include advice on how to spot and nurture budding physicists. In his so-called “Choices and Chances” workshops, Richards helps students make informed decisions about what they want to study and why, regardless of their ethnic or social backgrounds.
But giving them a chance to study science is only a starting point. Richards works to enable ethnic minorities and students from underprivileged backgrounds to become highfliers, too. After hearing many teachers say that they did not encourage their students to apply to institutions like ICL because they saw it as beyond reach, Richards decided to encourage state schools to “do more to push their students to aim for the top.”
Richards instigated a scheme called “Insights” that gives A-level students the experience of working and studying in ICL’s physics department. The scheme provides “a level playing field for all kids from all types of schools, including schools from deprived areas of the country,” Richards says.
As part of the broader Generating Genius program, Richards facilitated and hosted a school challenge at ICL that paired pupils from inner city schools and Eton College, the prestigious public school, to help them understand different approaches to learning by solving science and engineering-based challenges together. “His energy is infectious, and his commitment to making a difference is inspiring,” adds Hassard, who, with Richards, co-founded a company called Duvas Technologies Ltd., which produces wireless pollution monitoring technologies.
In graduate school, “I was the only person of Afro-Caribbean descent in the department. I tried to rationalize that, thinking that because my parents came over [to the United Kingdom] in the ’60s, maybe I am the first of a new wave that’s on its way,” Richards says. Progress in the number of Afro-Caribbean students studying science has been slower than he had hoped, Richards admits, but he does all he can to speed it up.
To students from all backgrounds, he sends this message: “There is nothing stopping you from doing it if you really enjoy it. I don’t think it’s the case that you need to have special connections or inside knowledge. You’ve got to work hard … and not let others put you off.”
Top Image: Mark Richards CREDIT: Meilin Sancho/Imperial Physics Department