Interview with Marcelle McManus

The renewable technologies expert discusses being told there was ‘no future in sustainability’ and why cloning herself would be useful

April 2, 2020
Marcelle McManus

Marcelle McManus is professor of energy and environmental engineering and co-director of the Centre for Sustainable and Circular Technologies at the University of Bath. Her career has included a focus on bridging gulfs of understanding between scientists, engineers and lawyers, and on disseminating her research to both policymakers and to major companies such as Google and Shell. She recently won the academic category at the 2020 FDM everywoman in Technology Awards.

What sort of undergraduate were you?
Not the best! I don’t think I really got into education until I finished my first degree. It was only when I started doing my MSc [at the University of East Anglia] that I really began to enjoy it. I started a PhD [at Bath] by accident – I accepted a job as a researcher [on hydraulic fluids], and I was offered the option of doing a PhD. I wasn’t really keen, but there were benefits to being a student (cheaper access to the swimming pool!) so I enrolled.

What was your most memorable moment at university?
I applied to be a volunteer ranger in the Peak District National Park. I really enjoyed being outdoors and meeting different types of people.

What advice would you give your younger self?
Work hard, embrace the things you enjoy and don’t let others tell you what is important. Lots of people told me that there was no future in working in sustainability or the environment.

When did you realise that you wanted to devote your working life to sustainability?
From a very early age, I cared passionately about deforestation and climate change and was a member of Friends of the Earth, Scotland. I had an amazing geography teacher who taught us about famine and the implications of the ways in which we live. I loved science and knew that I needed to do something to stop our impact on the world around us. I was unsure what to do, but I found a leaflet from the Institute of Physics that showed all the ways you could use physics to understand the environment.

What skills do academics need if they want to win over policymakers and business?
Communication is critical. We can create all the best technology in the world, but unless it is adopted and behaviour changes it won’t make any difference. We also need to understand how to put everything we do into context and think in terms of the wider system. Focusing on individual technological fixes won’t work.

Could the decline in economic activity as a result of the coronavirus pandemic act as a spur to creating a more sustainable world?
Greenhouse gas emissions have reduced as a result of people staying at home and working and living in a different way. Obviously, the current global situation is awful. However, maybe people will realise that we do have the technology to work differently.

Your award comes from a platform devoted to empowering women in business. What more should universities be doing in this area?
Universities and businesses are becoming increasingly aware of the need for (and benefits of) diversity. There are all sorts of ways in which we can measure this, and mechanisms to encourage more diversity. However, we need to focus more on inclusivity – and that is far harder to measure and achieve. We need to be careful we don’t overwhelm the women we do have by getting them to sit on every committee and board and interview panel. While doing this means we have more role models, it won’t work if all the women are broken!

Why is more diversity crucial in helping us address today’s major global challenges?
Our global challenges are complex. There is no silver bullet. We can’t continue to have a small group of people trying to solve the problems; it hasn’t worked to date! As a fantastic colleague once said to me, if you asked a pregnant woman or someone with small children to design a city, you’d get something that looks radically different. Similarly, if you ask people with different backgrounds, challenges and training to solve any problem, you will be able to draw on a wide variety of ideas and potential solutions. Independently, some will be great. Together, they might just solve the problem.

How can your centre act as a focus to enable important research to make a practical and positive impact?
Our research is embedded in industry and policy best practice. It has real-world impact at local, national and international level. We develop new creative, multidisciplinary ways of working to tackle global problems.

Tell us about someone you’ve always admired.
Recently, at the FDM everywoman Awards…I saw Sue Black [professor of computer science and technology evangelist at Durham University] [and] felt a bit like a groupie when I was introduced! She has inspired so many people through her enthusiasm for technology and her ability to follow an unconventional, and difficult, path with such success. Not only that, but she was instrumental in saving Bletchley Park.

If you were a prospective university student now facing substantial fees, would you go again or go straight into work?
There is no way I could do what I do now if I hadn’t been to university. And yet I didn’t enjoy my first degree and I might have decided against education at that point if the financial burden [had been] high...I don’t think people should be put in that situation.

What one thing (in more normal times) would improve your working week?
The ability to clone myself: one to work, one to sleep and one to spend time with my family! At the moment I need a further one to be able to home-school effectively!

Matthew Reisz


Appointments

Pascale Quester has been announced as the next vice-chancellor of Swinburne University. She joins from the University of Adelaide, where she has been deputy vice-chancellor and vice-president (academic) since 2011. Professor Quester is a researcher in consumer behaviour and marketing communications and in 2012 was awarded the French Order of Merit. “Notwithstanding current headwinds, Swinburne is superbly poised for a bright future and I am honoured and humbled to lead the team and all staff through the next chapter of Swinburne’s evolution,” Professor Quester said.

Mike Maunder has been appointed the executive director of the Cambridge Conservation Initiative, a collaboration between the University of Cambridge and biodiversity conservation organisations in and around Cambridge. Most recently he was executive director and director of life sciences at the Eden Project, but has also held roles at the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew and Florida International University. He succeeds Mike Rands, who is stepping down to become Master of Darwin College, Cambridge. Dr Maunder said he could not think of a better place for “forging a future for biodiversity and society”, owing to the “extraordinary collaborative power of [the initiative’s] partner institutions and its position at the centre of Cambridge’s unparalleled intellectual and cultural assets”.

The National University of Singapore has made three new appointments. Erle Lim will take on the new role of vice provost (teaching innovation and quality), Zuowei Shen has been appointed the vice provost (graduate education) and Sun Yeneng will take up the role as dean-designate of NUS Science.

The University of British Columbia has appointed Natalie Cook Zywicki as associate vice-president, alumni, and executive director of alumni UBC. She joined the university as the interim director of development in the Faculty of Medicine and then became the associate director of annual giving in the development office.

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