February 13, 2018 | Interviews
Professor David Sampson is the University of Surrey’s new Vice-Provost of Research and Innovation.
He will lead the development of the University’s research strategy, taking responsibility for the delivery of the overall research portfolio.
Professor Sampson joined the University from his previous role at the University of Western Australia in Perth, where he was Head of the Optical+Biomedical Engineering Laboratory and Director of the Centre for Microscopy, Characterisation & Analysis. He is an internationally-recognised authority in photonics and has previously held positions at the University of Melbourne and the University of Kent.
With over twenty-five years’ research experience in industry and academia in photonics, optics, and microscopy and their application to communications, sensors and biomedicine, Professor Sampson is an acclaimed expert in his field and has been awarded a number of coveted prizes, including the Western Australian Innovator of the Year award. He is a Fellow of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, the Optical Society, and the International Optics & Photonics Society.
Tell us a little about your previous role at the University of Western Australia?
I headed up the main infrastructure facility which consists of £30m worth of microscopes and analytical instrumentation. This is run by a staff of 35 including 15 academics who work with over 500 researchers each year completing over 100,000 hours of instrument time to take their research to world-leading levels. A lot can be achieved when infrastructure is aggregated and ordered for the benefit of the institution. A good example of this is that this is the only University lab in the world forming part of the IAEA network undertaking nuclear forensics.
As part of running the research lab in Biophotonics, I oversee the creation of two spin-out companies, one a microscope-in-a-needle technology for brain biopsy guidance, and the other micro-imaging the stiffness of breast cancer for surgical guidance.
Tell us about your personal research experience
Interdisciplinary focus has been key for me, working collaboratively to combine different expertise. Building microscopes for imaging in people is not as easy as you might think in a university environment. A range of specialists is needed for this including physicists, electrical engineers, mechanical engineers and software engineers. Having built the microscopes, the next challenge is to make them useful; for this, doctors are needed. I have worked in cancer medicine, respiratory medicine, head and neck surgery, burns and dermatology. I have also worked with pathologists, health professionals, biologists, and physiologists.
With the openness of the world over the last 15-20 years, blossoming international collaborations have replaced isolated competition. I have relished that, perhaps, because I come from Perth, traditionally considered to be one of the most isolated cities on the planet. Today we are all so interconnected.
I love achieving deep understanding of a complex system, such as how light propagates in biological tissue – how images form, or don’t. But I must keep an eye on why I am doing it, and whose money I am spending – my responsibility is to deliver value. Research is a joyous privilege – but it comes at a real cost – in indulging my joy, there would be parts of roads or hospitals that would not be built. I must be able to get up in the morning, look myself in the mirror, and feel good in believing that my research is really worth it.
What made you choose to come to Surrey and what attracted you to the role?
I was looking for a new challenge after nearly ten years running the infrastructure facility and a large research group at UWA. I was approached to consider the role at Surrey – the timing was perfect. I really liked what I found at Surrey – quality, scope to get things done and making a difference, community, and a great like-minded, positive leadership team.
What do you bring to the role?
I bring enthusiasm and energy – I am out to make a positive difference! I also bring experience from two top 100 universities – the experience of seeing what works and what does not. I believe that we need to be bold, that we should relish change, and that real benefit requires a sustained consistent team effort. I don’t believe in change for change’s sake, rather that we should continually ask ourselves why we are doing what we do and are we spending our research pounds well?
What are your key priorities?
The quality of research at Surrey is excellent. I will look to improve research at Surrey in scale, adjusting the “Technology Readiness Level” scope up the scale; and facilitating ease in getting research completed. I will focus on the commercialisation end of the spectrum and at the way which we can work through practical measures such as writing grant applications, making contact with commercial sponsors and having PHD students involved. I will look to enhance Surrey’s impact on society, reputation, and ranking.
How will you look to drive forward the research and innovation strategy at Surrey?
To achieve the above will require a number of approaches. Constantly looking to grow the funding pie is key, as is recruiting some great new people and better supporting our best. Also vital is altering, to some extent, what we value and reward in research; and better organising how we support it.
What do you think about the links between the University and the Surrey Research Park?
The Research Park is a jewel in the University’s crown. I am keen to further develop links, but first I need to listen and learn more. I am relishing the chance to do that and to see in what ways we can improve and enhance those linkages.
Surrey has a reputation for pragmatic outcomes-based research stemming from its Battersea roots. It also has a reputation for excellence in basic research. In reality, research is a continuum in which basic knowledge leads into applied knowledge and to practical outcomes, a good portion of which should be products of one form or another, earning an economic return. I would like to see the University and the Research Park be considered as, and to operate as, parts of this continuum. That means activity and benefits flowing both ways.
What are your thoughts on the future commercialisation of innovation at Surrey?
Governments worldwide are increasingly looking at university research and asking whether or not they are getting value for money. As the university sector has burgeoned, and research has become a de facto measure of quality, it has increased in scale and importance within the university sector. Governments are right to question the value. The drivers of university research are not currently very well matched to government expectations. Effective research at Surrey requires maximising the generation of benefit to society, and a good piece of that will come through commercialisation. Is Surrey doing as well as it could in this area? Like everywhere else, there is room for improvement, and my first task is to gauge the scope of that. I am listening, learning, and rolling up my sleeves.
What potential do you see for the future relationship between the University and the Research Park?
As I said, I see a future in which the University and Research Park are highly integrated with a flow of ideas, people and opportunities going both ways.
Of course, both parts of this whole need to see the value in that – and understanding the value proposition from both sides will be key. Whilst the drivers of commercial entities are not within our control, aligning the University’s rewards systems, by contrast, is something that we can tackle, if needed, to make sure what we are expecting from our researchers is properly recognised. It is all about the Research Park and University being on the same page and getting the University’s balance right between free spirited academic enquiry and more focused and targeted problem solving. And like any relationship, it requires energy and attention from both sides to remain vibrant and healthy.